Venice: The Alternative to Italy’s Pasta

Published by Tuesday, October 16, 2018 Permalink 0

by Jonell Galloway

No, I’m sorry. The staple of Venice is not pasta.

Yes, in Italy, they eat pasta, but Venice and the neighboring Veneto region are relative newcomers to both pasta and Italy. Venice and the Veneto, which the Venetian Republic dominated for centuries, only became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866 to escape the rule of the Austrian Empire, imposed after the Napoleonic Wars. Before that, the people of the Veneto didn’t speak much Italian; they primarily spoke Venetian. The Italian language and customs? They’ve adopted those, including pasta, relatively recently.

Abandoned agricultural storage building in a rice field in northern Italy


In contrast to most of Italy, the Veneto’s main starches are polenta and rice; pasta appears, but only on the odd day. Dine out with a Venetian and you can be sure he’ll order risotto or eat a dish served with polenta as a side. And sometimes, potato gnocchi.

In the Roman Empire — and even now in Italy — “polenta” consisted of what we call “mush” or gruel, but it can be made from almost any grain, corn polenta being the most widely marketed.
Millet, also eaten as porridge, grew wild in Europe as far back as 4000 B.C., so the first Venetian polenta was certainly millet mush. Thanks to millet’s short time to harvest, it was most likely the crop of the earliest, post-nomadic farmers inhabiting the Veneto.

A kind of emmer wheat had grown wild and was domesticated early on. It was mainly eaten as gruel or flat bread, and sometimes made into beer.
Corn arrived late on the scene, brought back from the New World, and eventually replaced millet. Until the end of World War II, residents of the Veneto ate mainly white-corn polenta, a variety called biancoperla. This corn is hardy, although its yields are lower than the yellow most commonly found these days. If you see white polenta in a restaurant, it is often a sign of quality, since it is not only rare, to the point of being given Presidium status by Slow Food, but more expensive.

Three varieties of rice from the Veneto

Rice was introduced to the Veneto by Benedictine nuns in the sixteenth century and the oldest variety carries the name of the village where the abbey was located, Grumolo delle Abbadesse. Rice caught on to the point that in the same century, Marc’Antonio Sarego, a wealthy man from Verona, sold a large estate to buy up marshy lands to grow rice. More investors, many from the city of Venice, followed his example, and thanks to their profits, many of the Palladian villas were built.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes arrived from South America later in the sixteenth century. Several varieties of potato, including those from Cologna and around Vicenza, Padua and Verona, are highly valued and referred to as patata veneta. Sweet potatoes are grown near the riverbeds in the region around Brenta. Those of Anguillara are most prized.

With the introduction of other grains, millet became the staple of the poor or fodder for livestock, while wheat, a wild grass that had long been cultivated, became the rich man’s grain of choice. Nowadays, the Veneto is full of Triticum of many kinds: hard wheat, soft wheat, winter wheat, summer wheat, and spelt, as well as buckwheat. There is bread on every table, usually made from bleached white flour, although more sophisticated bakers use buckwheat, spelt, corn, rye, barley, corn, and several other types of wheat and grains from the region.

Multiple grains from the North of Italy

The plains of the Veneto are a treasure-house of grain and the Venetians make full use of the diversity in their cuisine. Many varieties and colors of each exist, including the IGP-protected black rice known as Vialone Nano Veronese. Belluno in the north is known for its ancient variety of barley, dating back to the time of the original Veneti inhabitants, and Verona for stone-ground Bramata corn polenta, coarser and not precooked.

So in plain talk and culinary terms, what does this mean? It means a style of cuisine based on these grains, mixed with a panoply of other products from the sea and land.

Corn polenta is eaten as a side dish or a main dish mixed with meat, and sometimes with fish or seafood. It’s either eaten soupy, or sometimes left to cool, then fried until crispy. It can be coarsely ground, as in the case of Bramata, or finely ground into white cornmeal. Polenta is eaten as a porridge made with milk, called polentina; as polenta pastizzada, layered with meat similar to lasagne; or as polenta con osei  or połenta e oxeli, served alongside small game birds.

Grilled polenta, served as a side dish in the Veneto

Baccalà alla vicentina, made with the stockfish (dried cod) common throughout the Veneto, is served with a semi-runny white polenta, and fegato alla veneziana, calf’s liver with onions, with either grilled or creamy white polenta. Baccalà mantecato, a mousse made with stockfish, oil, milk, and garlic then laid on a cake of fried polenta or bread, is served in the wine bars of Venice as a cicchetto, the Venetian version of tapas.

In the Polesine, the area just south of Padua and Venice, white corn has historically been preferred over the yellow. Polenta alla carbonara, made also further south in Le Marche, contains Bramata cornmeal and guancialePolenta con i ciccioli, often served as an hors-d’oeuvre with drinks, is rendered pork fat cooked with polenta. For a seasonal appetizer, schie, tiny grey lagoon shrimp, are nestled atop a bed of white polenta.

Cornmeal is not limited to savory dishes. In Padua and Rovigo, smejassa, a sweet focaccia made with cornmeal, aniseed, and fruit, appears on the feast of St. Martin and Christmas Eve. In bakeries and at home, zaletti, also known as zaeti in the Venetian language, are prepared with finely ground cornmeal, butter, and raisins. The Veronese make Tressian, a cornmeal cake known as Amor Polenta in other places in the Veneto. Pinza Dolce Veneto, a cake eaten at Epiphany, combines cornmeal and wheat flour with dried fruit such as raisins, figs, and dates, and is flavored with grappa, fennel seeds, and orange zest. In the countryside around Verona and Vicenza, during Carnival, they eat polenta fritelle, sugar-coated fritters, called fritole in Venetian.

Polenta, dried corn and corn on the cob

Rice (riso) and risotto are eaten all over the Po Valley and north of Italy. Long-grain rice is used for soups and desserts, and shorter-grain, high-starch rices that stick together when cooked for risotto. These include Arborio, Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, Padano, Roma, and Vialone Nano, among others. Risotto is cooked differently from plain rice or pilaf and from boiled rice in that it is never boiled. A soffrito is made from fat and shallot or onions. Rice is added to this and stirred until it toasts. White wine is then poured in and cooked to absorption, and finally, broth is added ladle by ladle until the rice is cooked. Butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano are usually tossed in at the end.

In the Veneto, risotto is almost like rice soup, a consistency referred to as all’onda, and quite different from the version popular in the rest of Italy. The rice must be firm (al dente), not soft or over-cooked, while the risotto itself should have a creamy consistency. It is eaten with a spoon, normally as a starter or primo, sometimes as a main dish. Venetian risotto might be seasoned with seafood, meat, or seasonal vegetables, but care is taken not to mix too many flavors at once.

By far the most celebrated risotto in Venice is risi e bisi, made with fresh spring peas using a special method. It is said there should be as many peas as there are grains of rice, but because peas are expensive and labor-intensive, that rarely happens. In the Veneto, unlike in the rest of Italy, the peas are mixed into the risotto instead of served on top. Asparagus, strawberries and grape risotto are savory, made with garlic, oil, and parsley, and finished with Parmigiano, depending on the area. Porcini mushroom risotto is a classic, and radicchio, the king of Veneto vegetables and available all year long, is another favorite, although it’s not often found in restaurants.

Risi e bisi, a spring specialty

In risotto al nero di seppie, squid ink dyes the white rice black. The Burano specialty risotto de — the best I’ve had was on this lagoon island of fishermen, where it’s made to order — is prepared using goby fish, and is rare enough in Venice proper. Traditionally made with lobster, shrimp and squill, risotto ai frutti di mare is the star of most tourist restaurants, and you’ll often fall upon risotto ai gamberi, i.e., with shrimp. Due to the length of cooking time, it is more often than not microwaved and therefore served overcooked, so take care to order it in a top-notch restaurant.

Vegetarians will love pumpkin risottorisotto alla zucca or de suca, served as a savory starter.

Risotto is sometimes made with meat. Chicken liver risotto is seasoned with sage. I’ve even had risotto made with expensive Amarone wine instead of the classic white wine.

Every respectable cook in the Veneto makes homemade potato gnocchi. You can always recognize when they’re homemade because they’re hand-shaped and irregular. Gnocchi with tomato sauce will please even the most finicky eater, and if you see granseola (spider crab) sauce, go for it because it’s rare and entails much labor.

Making homemade gnocchi

Potato polenta is mixed with chestnut flour and seasoned with salami, meat, cheese, and a variety of other ingredients in neighboring German-speaking Trentino. Riso e patate, a common poor man’s food, especially in winter, is cooked in meat broth. It dates from the Austrian occupation.

Sweet potatoes bear many names in the Veneto: patata americana (Italian) or mericana (Venetian language) or patata dolce or batata. It’s rare to see them in restaurants, but around Padua, they may pop up in homes as gnocchi, pies, and even risotto, much in the same way as pumpkin. In Padua, sweet potatoes also appear in the form of a cake with pine nuts. Even the famous gastronome, Pelligrino Artusi, included a recipe for sweet potato pie with almonds in his nineteenth-century survey of Italian cuisine, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

And finally, pasta. Venetian cuisine does not entirely omit pasta from its starch pantheon.

Pasta e faxioi, or in Italian pasta e fagioli, a hearty soup traditionally eaten in the countryside, now found in simpler city restaurants as a starter, combines fresh or dried Lamon beans from Belluno — a kind of borlotti — with pancetta, potatoes, and other vegetables, and a small pasta such as macaroni or ditalini, seasoned with rosemary.

Legend has it that bigoli, the most prevalent pasta in the Veneto, saw the light of day in Padua in 1604 when a machine called a bigolaro was patented for making vermicelli and “long pasta,” made with soft wheat, water, and salt. Durum wheat and buckwheat versions came later.

Bigoli, the Veneto’s “fat” spaghetti

Bigoli in salsa or en sarde, considered a dish of “atonement” according to Catholic tradition in Venice, is consumed on Christmas Eve, Good Friday and Ash Wednesday, and is now found in practically any true Venetian restaurant any day of the week. It is made from fileted sardines or anchovies, depending on the catch, and marinated for at least 24 hours in white wine vinegar, slow-cooked onions, pine nuts, and raisins, with many variations on this theme. Sarde sauce can be eaten as cicchetti, the traditional small plates eaten in Venetian bars, served on bread or a bed of polenta, or as a sauce with bigoli or other pasta.

The lagoons of the Veneto are full of ducks and other wildfowl so bigoli con anatra or bigołi co’ l’arna in Venetian, originally from Padua and Treviso, is a ragù of duck, including the duck liver and innards, traditionally cooked in its own fat and served over bigoli. It’s slow-cooked, so not common in restaurants, but pure delight. Seeing it on a menu is generally a sign of the authenticity of the restaurant.

Ask someone from Vicenza what pasta their grandmother made and they’re likely to say gargati, a macaroni-like egg pasta made from a mixture of hard and soft wheat. Gargati con il consiero is made with strips of pork fat, white wine, onions, parsley, nettles or other herbs, and tomatoes. Today, mixed ground meat might also be added, and the same sauce might be found on bigoli or in lasagne.

Gargati macaroni

Tortellini di Valeggio, found in the region of Verona, are stuffed with Grana Padano cheese and ground pork and chicken, and are cooked in meat broth.

Many of the dishes listed here are only found in people’s homes or in select restaurants in the region or cities I mentioned. The list of dishes can serve as reference as you travel around the Veneto.

In Venice proper — a destination for unaware tourists in search of pasta and pizza, thinking it’s like the rest of Italy — you won’t find many traditional Veneto recipes, but if you do, go for it. It means that the cooking was probably inspired by a nonna from the region.

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The History of Roquefort French Dressing

Published by Friday, September 14, 2018 Permalink 1

by Gary Allen

Roquefort cheese has been made in the caves of Combalou, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, at least since Gaul was occupied by the Romans — Pliny the Elder spoke highly of it, and he was not the sort who normally gushed gourmet superlatives. By 1411, Les Causses had been granted the exclusive right to the name “Roquefort,” and all other blue-veined cheeses had to make their own reputations. Salads, of course, go back much further — they were known to the ancient Greeks — but didn’t have an entire book devoted to them until 1699, when Robert Evelyn published his Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets.

When salad and Roquefort cheese first got together is somewhat more mysterious. Usually, recipes just “happen,” they evolve — often in several places at the same time — in response to new tastes, the availability of new ingredients, etc. Recipes, or “receipts,” have only found their way into print after a sufficient number of people found them useful. Only rarely can we provide, with any certainty, the “who, what, where, when and how” of a recipe’s creation.

Handwritten recipe for blue cheese/Roquefort dressing












We can look for clues to “who, what, where, when and how” it might have been invented though. We know that Roquefort Dressing did not first appear in France — the French preferred simple vinaigrettes on their salads and thought too highly of the great cheese to reduce it to the status of a mere ingredient in something else.

We also know that Roquefort cheese was fairly well-known in the U.S, at least as early as the 1850s. Thomas Jefferson would surely have known about it over fifty years earlier, and he was very fond of salads, but they tended to be dressed with egg-yolk-thickened dressings.

Homans Isaac Smith wrote, in 1859: “In France, the Roquefort cheese is the most esteemed, and next, that of Neufchatel. The former somewhat resembles Stilton, but is much inferior; and the latter is a cream cheese, seldom exceeding a quarter of a pound.”

Elliot G. Storke, also writing in 1859, agreed with Smith: “In France, the Roquefort cheese is compared to our Stilton, but is much inferior, although a good cheese. The little cheeses made from cream and folded in paper, called Neufchatel cheeses, are imported from France as a delicacy.”

Apparently, Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Storke’s tastes were still primarily British, long after America had gained independence. One traveler, writing in Appletons’ Journal: A Magazine of General Literature, in 1875, had a somewhat different opinion of the cheese: “If America ever produced cheese equal to that delicious green-streaked cream, which is known as the Roquefort, its manufacture may surely be ranked among the forgotten arts.”


recipe card roquefort dressing




















Wirt Sikes, traveling to Brussels, complained about his accommodations in a hotel there:

There was no gas, and the dim light of the solitary candles did not produce a cheerful effect. There was no fireplace in either room, and we could not get warm. Weary and worn, chilled and hungry, we dejectedly ordered a cold chicken and a bit of Roquefort cheese to be served in my room, for the dining-room was closed and the kitchen-fires were out, although it was not yet midnight. The chicken came, but no Roquefort; they had only Stilton and Cheshire, the waiter said, in English. In fact, we had chanced upon the particular hotel in Brussels where they give you the English language in lieu of comfort, and English dishes in lieu of good living.

By the 1870s American palates had clearly become more sophisticated!

Salads with “French dressings” (vinaigrettes with various additions) became fashionable in America in the 1880s, but in the cookbook assembled by the Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition, no mention of Roquefort Dressing appeared.

fannie farmer original 1896 boston cooking-school cook book





















Fannie Farmer’s original 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book used “French dressing” in the vinaigrette sense, and included some 13 recipes for salad dressings, but none of them resembles Roquefort Dressing. Several had creamy textures, but they were cooked and contained cream and/or egg yolks. This is hardly surprising, as she doesn’t even list Roquefort among the cheeses she included in her book. Curiously, she does mention three mold-veined cheeses: Cheshire, Gorgonzola, and Stilton.

In 1915, Hellmann’s mayonnaise first appeared in jars, and salad dressings began to multiply — Ranch, Green Goddess and a new sweet-sour orange concoction called “French Dressing” (that had nothing whatsoever in common with the traditional vinaigrettes) — soon appeared on grocers’ shelves.

hellmann's mayonnaise history












By the 1920s, green salads became popular — first in California, and then across the country (especially in the new tearooms that catered to a female clientele). According to Jan Whitaker, “Salads, called ‘the thinking woman’s luncheon, and the university girl’s dessert,’ were also popular attractions in tearooms.”

Finally, in the salad dressing recipes in 1928’s Edgewater Beach Hotel Salad Book, we find:

…classified under the headings of French Dressings, Mayonnaises, Boiled Dressings, Sour Cream Dressings, Vinegars, and Miscellaneous Dressings . . . the final section [was] devoted to . . . the four universally used dressings, French, Mayonnaise, Roquefort, and Thousand Island.

So, somewhere before 1928, Roquefort Salad Dressing “just happened” and became popular enough that it became standard almost immediately. What were its immediate precursors; what sorts of things were people eating that might have planted the idea of the dressing in the public mind? One recipe, by Rufus Estes, chef for two presidents (Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison), and and one of the first African-Americans to write and publish a cookbook, in 1911, is suggestive:

Trianon Salad — Cut one grapefruit and two oranges in sections and free from seeds and membrane. Skin and seed one cup white grapes and one-third cup pecan nut meats in small pieces. Mix ingredients, arrange on a bed of romaine and pour over the following dressing: Mix four tablespoons olive oil, one tablespoon grape juice, one tablespoon grape vinegar, one-fourth teaspoon paprika, one-eighth teaspoon pepper and one tablespoon finely chopped Roquefort cheese. This dressing should stand in the ice-box four or five hours to become seasoned.

Fannie Farmer, in 1918, wrote a recipe that was a little more like what we think of when we hear the term “Roquefort Dressing”:

Tomato and Cheese Salad

Peel six medium-sized tomatoes, chill, and scoop out a small quantity of pulp from the centre of each. Fill cavities, using equal parts of Roquefort and Neufchâtel cheese worked together and moistened with French Dressing. Arrange on lettuce leaves and serve with French Dressing.”

By 1947, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book had two versions of a dressing we would immediately recognize. Both were based on “French Dressing” (that basic vinaigrette) with crumbled Roquefort added; one also contained mayonnaise.












Roquefort French Dressing

Add 1 to 4 Tablespoons dry Roquefort cheese crumbs and a few drops of onion juice.


Roquefort Cheese Dressing

2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
French Dressing
2 Tablespoons Roquefort Cheese
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Mix mayonnaise and cheese and add French dressing very slowly; then add Worcestershire sauce. Cream cheese or Roquefort-flavored cream cheese may be used in place of Roquefort.

The first Fannie Farmer recipe is almost identical to the one in Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (first published 1931), which means the dressing had become a standard by that time.

Joy of Cooking, Erma S. Rombauer























Roquefort or Blue Cheese French Dressing

Prepare: 1/2 Cup French Dressing

Beat into it 2 Tablespoons or more crumbled Roquefort or blue cheese.

We do know the particulars on some Roquefort recipes, however. Cobb salad (which contained Roquefort, but crumbled on top of the vinaigrette, not blended in, rather like Este’s Trianon Salad) was invented at the Original Hollywood Brown Derby, in 1937 by owner Bob Cobb. The best-known dish making use of Roquefort Dressing is Buffalo Chicken Wings, a dish invented by Frank and Teressa Bellissimo, at the Anchor Bar, 1047 Main Street, Buffalo, New York. The hot-sauce-drenched wings, accompanied by celery sticks and Roquefort Dressing, were first served in 1964.










And yes, even the details of the history of recent inventions such as Buffalo Chicken Wings, are hotly argued (there wouldn’t be a need for food historians if all the answers were easy), but you can sort through the accounts for yourself at On the Wings of a Buffalo or ‘Mother Teressa’s Wings.’

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