I’ve come home. No, I should state that differently. I’ve had to redefine home.
We have decided to spend winters in Venice and summers in France and Switzerland. I have been absent from The Rambling Epicure over the last year and a half only in body, not in spirit. I continue living like a nomad, often not taking time to unpack my suitcase, hopping from Venice to Chartres and occasionally landing in Switzerland, which is still officially my home.
I am alive and I even kick from time to time just to make sure I still can. During this long absence, I fought an unnamed virus. Italian, French and Swiss doctors agreed that it would pass and it finally has. It was, in principle, an entirely physical ailment, yet became trying to the spirit.
During the midst of it, I managed to work on four book projects and get to know Venice up close, and I’ve learned to tell myself: rest, my girl, you are tired. Rest, your body needs it. Rest and it will get better. This has been a hard lesson and I’m still not sure I’ve totally learned it, but the tranquility of the canals and water help, along with the ineffable beauty at every turn.
One of my greatest lessons has been the discovery of Venetian cuisine. In Venice, where we are spending seven months this year, we are blessed with wonderful fish, seafood, vegetables, and fruit; going to the Rialto farmers market is the ultimate experience for a serious cook and eater. In the fall of 2015, I arrived in Venice for our first long stay with my Marcella Hazan cookbooks in tow, which I’d never been able to truly use in France. Good-quality Italian ingredients were scarce in the north of France, where I’d spent a good deal of my life, and in any case, I’d dedicated my life to French cuisine. That was my all-consuming passion until I arrived in Venice for a long stay.
When French chef Alain Ducasse started serving pasta and risotto in 1994, French restaurant critics were shocked that Italian cuisine had managed to cross the border. Italian cooking is in many ways the opposite of French. It plays on simplicity and essentiality, not complexity. This is not to say that the French don’t insist on good ingredients, because they do, but the quality of raw materials has slipped tremendously since 1981 when I first landed in Paris. French cooking has historically been about taking a good ingredient of noble origin, dressing it up fancy, and topping it with a crown and jewels. Italian is about reflecting on its noble qualities and enhancing them so they stand, almost nude, like kings on a white, gold-rimmed plate. The French still love fancy table settings with white linens, crystal, and fancy silver, while the Italians generally tend to prefer rustic, family settings with no pretension.
There was a time in France when we ate smoked salmon and foie gras only at Christmas and New Year’s. With increased industrial production, it has become possible to eat them every day all year long. Much of the foie gras and salmon are made by the same industrial producer, who was, in the old days, a specialist in Southwest specialties. You might say Venice is in many ways behind, though I don’t want it to change. Like France in 1981, the bread in most bakeries is white and has the texture of cardboard. In those days, what the French called “whole grain” bread, or pain complet, was made of bleached white flour with a handful of bran thrown in, and it’s often like that in Venice in 2017. The beginning of the eighties must have been the lowest historical point in French bread. Venetian bakeries are only learning, or perhaps relearning, to use the barley, corn, farro, and other grains grown in the Veneto region, and when they do it, they do it extremely well.
For twenty some years, I celebrated Thanksgiving in France with good friends, but Venice has become like home now. Last year, our friends Tom and Maggie came to Venice and our Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts were Venetian-inspired using, of course, Venetian ingredients. I made two guinea fowls stuffed with yellow corn polenta, chestnut flour, onions, celery, chiodini wild mushrooms, pine nuts, and raisins served on chickpea blinis and topped with persimmon sauce. With that, roast pumpkin; cardoons alla parmigiana; grilled trevisano, the elongated radicchio from Treviso, and fresh red currants, followed by Gorgonzola marinated in Marsala. And the most Venetian of all: tiramisù cake from Martini in the Strada Nova in Cannaregio and 20-year Marsala.
After two winters here, we know where to go for the best bread, pastries, chocolate, polenta, pasta, but it takes some motivation and a lot of walking. There’s more mediocre food than sublime. Venice is no longer for Venetians, many say, including the novelist Donna Leon who lived here for many years. It caters to the tastes and needs of tourists, so finding the most basic items can be challenging. At any point in time, there are more tourists in Venice than there are Venetians. Like anyplace, it takes time to find the gems, and that includes food. The city is increasingly invaded by day tourists from the cruise ships in search of low-priced Made in China “Murano” glass and other such trinkets, which doesn’t help improve the quality of life for those who live here. In fact, many natives have fled because of prices and crowds.
The Veneto region around Venice grows many grains, but mainly large, flat fields of corn and rice which you can see from the airplane, so polenta and risotto are more typical of traditional local cuisine than pasta. It has the third largest number of agriturismo businesses in the country, and organic farming is on the increase. It also holds the Italian record for wine exports, including Prosecco, which Venetians drink pretty much all day long. Both Chioggia, site of the most famous sea battle in Venetian history, and Verona radicchio are listed by the EU as one of the 26 Veneto foods of excellence, but ours mainly comes from Treviso and can be found on plates in some form or other for most of the year. Many of our fruit and vegetables come from the lagoon farming islands, mainly Sant’Erasmo, which produces some of the best small violet artichokes I’ve had. The artisanal chocolate is worthy of long sea voyages to please those waiting back home. Some Austrian pastries, such as Sachertorte and apple strudel, have been incorporated into the Venetian pantheon.
Good restaurants are not plentiful, but then I’m a demanding diner. Many cater to these same tourists, and one has to seek out those with authentic Venetian cuisine cooked with good, fresh ingredients. But it’s possible, and I’ve spent a lot of time doing it and come to have some favorite haunts, many holes-in-the-wall with no name on them that you’d never find in a guidebook. Roberto Zillio, in his wine bar Cantine Aziende Agricole in Cannaregio, makes the best pasta anywhere in town. La Zucca, meaning literally “pumpkin,” is a vegetable-intensive restaurant in Santa Croce and they always have pumpkin, a local specialty, on the menu in at least a couple forms. Osteria Alle Testiere and Ristorante La Madonna offer great seafood, La Madonna being traditional fare (the fish is often pre-cooked and reheated, but the seafood is perfect), while Testiere offers traditional fare with a modern flare. Both have good wine lists.
Roberto’s is one of many wine bars, called bàcari, in abundance throughout the city. My French-trained palate had a lot of difficulty with the wine in these bars at the beginning. Much of what is served is not aged and tastes green and lacks all complexity to my Frenchified taste buds. I was accustomed to old Bordeaux and blends, after all, and these wines are young, most often unbottled and uncorked, varietal wines, arriving in large vats on boats as shown below. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot take on a different character in this soil and with these wine-making methods and I’ve started to acquire a taste, especially for the finer wines like Ripasso, Amarone and Lugana.
The Venetians are fond of their own cuisine based on fish and seafood and a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables for most of the year. The traditional “fast food” is found in the bàcari, which serve cicchetti, the Venetian version of small plates or tapas, instead of in pizzerias and hamburger joints, although these are becoming more prevalent. Cicchetti, most often fish-based with vegetables, are actually quite healthy and one can make a meal of them if one has a small appetite like I do, using these local ingredients.
Venice has made me realize how French I’d become. After all, I’ve spent more of my life in France than in my home country the U.S. And surprisingly, there is an active French population in Venice, dating from, I guess, the time of Napoleon, who put an end to the Venetian Republic in 1797, through the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, now owned by the French (LVMH) group DFS, now a luxury shopping center; the Fondation Pinault, a contemporary art foundation in the old customs house and the Palazzo Grassi; or the Palezzetto Bru Zane concert venue, dedicated to the study and revival of French Romantic music. If one looks hard, there are even influences in the food, for example, Monica Cesarato‘s Gratin Dauphinois, or gratin di patate. This is not to say you’ll ever find a French restaurant in Venice, apart from a few crêperies. These are dishes people make at home.
Our Venetian adventure continues until May 9, when we return to our beloved Chartres, where I’ll fill myself with bread made from flour and grains from the local mills, locally made charcuterie; fish straight from Normandy coast, and fruit and vegetables that I can pick at the farms outside town.
Viruses come, and viruses go, or do they ever really leave? I might call my state hiraeth — a deep incompleteness that I recognize as familiar — because it has no name. For now, I’m alive, but I’ve re-evaluated my life. “Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all,” wrote Hermann Hesse. For me, home has become the place where I eat well and feel good, where I can love and be loved, where intimacy can be found around the next corner, whether it be a reflection in a canal or the sunlight eating through the fog. It no longer has an address.