Venetian Hours: Sant’Erasmo, the Vegetable Garden of Venice
Growing up in rural Kentucky, there were no Jews or Muslims. I wasn’t taught to distinguish between Gentiles, Jews and Arabs, and had no preconceived ideas about any of them. The only thing I knew about Jews was what I learned at my rather liberal Sunday School, where Jews were presented in a good light, since Jesus had been one, after all, and the Old Testament was part of our Bible.
It’s not surprising that, quite unconsciously, I have friends of all persuasions and felt at ease going to the opening commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto – the first one in the world, the term which came to be used around the world to describe a segregated enclave – at La Fenice opera house last night. Five hundred years ago, on March 29, 1516, the Venetian government decided to confine the approximately 700 Jews then living in Venice to a 10-acre area, on the site of a copper foundry. In fact, the word “ghetto” means “cast” in Italian and refers to this fact.
Although they were allowed to go into the city to work during the day, they were to sleep, eat and live in this small, enclosed space and return by sundown, when the gates to the ghetto were locked. The truth is Venice might well have had difficulty functioning at all if they had locked in Jewish doctors, lawyers, printers, cloth and spice merchants, bankers, musicians and dancing masters entirely. During this period, they were forced to wear yellow and red badges (colors associated with shame) to signify that they were Jews; the Nazis didn’t invent this concept.
The evening was full of guest speakers of every Jewish persuasion, but my favorite was Simon Schama, a brilliant, dynamic British scholar, who has written extensively about the history of the Jews. It was not a celebration, but a commemoration of what the Jews have suffered and the resilience they have drawn from it and of the abundance of works of art and scholarship that arose out of it despite all the hardship. This word stuck in my mind: resilience. My Jewish friends and husband are the most resilient people I know; perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to them, apart from their incredible intellect, appreciation of the arts, precision, and natural curiosity.
The ceremony was followed by the La Fenice Orchestra’s wonderful rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, perhaps his work most influenced by traditional Jewish musical themes. I cried many tears, especially during the moving speech by Renzo Gattegna, President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, with his profound understanding and ability to speak of what it is to remain human, empathic and just under even the most humiliating conditions. At the same time, I drew great joy from this evening, knowing that I have the blessing of loving and being loved by so many Jews.
Timeline and history
There are many ways to visit Venice, but if you want a real Venetian experience without disappointments, here are some tips.
Interactive map of Venice.
In France, many a festive occasion is highlighted with sea bass. And since France and Venice are first cousins once removed, it turns out to be rather the same in Venice. A big fat bass is considered a treat.
Both places make sea bass in a salt crust, which is perhaps the cooking method that best preserves the juices, but when you have a nice wild one, which is rare enough these days, it will stand up to roasting.
I got inspiration for this recipe from a traditional Venetian recipe called branzino con patate et olive, or sea bass with potatoes and olives, in which they cook the bass on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes. One finds it in the better restaurants, but rarely in the touristy ones, perhaps because it’s time-consuming, although not difficult.
I’m wild about vegetables, so I added the sun-dried tomatoes, which add not only color, but a deeper flavor and more texture, an idea I got from Hosteria Al Vecio Bragosso near San Apostoli in our neighborhood of Cannaregio. The baby Swiss chard is also my addition.
Sometimes I add olives, sometimes not. Other times, I add capers, and other times both. This partially depends on whether the bass is wild or farmed. The farmed ones lack full flavor and these additions add some life as well as contrast to the dish. Onions can also add spark, especially to a farm-raised bass.
As always, my French touch means that I add a bit more wine than the Venetians. I do like my sauce. After all, that’s what life is all about, isn’t it?
Whole sea bass, wild if possible, cleaned and scaled, about 3 lbs. or 1.5 kg
4 large potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
10 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped finely
1 large onion, thinly sliced
Parsley, chopped coarsely
2-3 cups white wine
4-5 branches of fresh rosemary
One bunch of young Swiss chard or bietola
Black olives (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Heavy metal roasting pan
Click here for a conversion chart.
Tip: If you hesitate about adding this much white wine, you can substitute half of it with freshly squeezed orange juice. The exact cooking time of the sea bass varies depending on the thickness of the fish, thus the importance of using the spatula technique. There is no need to add lemon when serving, since the white wine gives an acidic edge. You can also use turbot for this dish; follow the same steps, but because it is not as thick as bass, the cooking time will be less.
Rosalba Zuanna Carriera was born into a modest Venetian family in 1675, but her world was not devoid of images, since her paternal grandfather was a painter and her mother a lacemaker. Her father was steward of the Procurator Bon, equivalent to a clerk.
Forever conscious of the family’s lack of means and therefore of dowry, her mother is said to have ensured that her three daughters learned Italian, French and Latin, as well as lacemaking, hoping to marry them into good families.
Many say this is the ultimate Venetian specialty, but considering that Venetians eat mainly fish, one could easily argue that point. A good fegato can be the highlight of a day or weekend, however.
Everyone loves caramelized onions, but some people dislike even the idea of eating liver. Calf’s liver is finer than beef or chicken, and when it’s topped with sweet onions, it is indeed a highly refined dish.
You’ll see the influence of my background in French cuisine; I went a bit heavy on the white wine when deglazing the pan, but it renders a succulent sauce.
One of the crucial elements to the success of this dish is that the liver be of exceptional quality and thinly sliced. Thick slabs simply don’t work and take away from the refined aspect of this dish.
Another secret is to slow cook the onions and to just seize the liver, no more. If you cook it more and on slow heat, it will become leathery.
400 g onions
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
400 g calf’s liver cut in extra-thin slices
1-2 cups white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
Italian parsley, chopped
Skillet large enough to spread liver in a single layer
If you live in Italy, you just have to have a nonna. Having just lost my “adopted” Italian grandmother, Nonna Margherita, in Switzerland, the time was right, and it happened in the most unlikely place: Bellaria-Igea, a seaside town in Romagna, known as the Italian region of land-and-sea because of its plentiful bounty of both fish and meat. As a result, the cuisine is varied and copious, playing on unending themes of the two. The hillsides beyond the shores are verdant and rolling, producing excellent wine, meat and cheese, while traditionally, the inhabitants by the seaside are fishermen.
Originally, Bellaria-Igea was a village of solely fishermen and their families. Their wives supplemented the family income by renting out rooms in their seaside cottages. While the men were fishing, the wives tended to the guests by cooking, cleaning and generally making them feel at home. Over the years, they added extra rooms and their homes became locande, or “inns,” and eventually pensioni, or “small hotels,” and this became a seaside resort. This is the story of the family of my new nonna, Nonna Violante.