‘The campo – the country – begins on the other side of the Ponte della Libertà’ quotes Javier Marías in his book, Venice, An Interior. This is apparently a saying amongst some Venetians who see their city as something held apart from the rest of the world; something separate and unique. Crossing Mussolini’s two mile bridge by train as I left the island city of Venice and returning to Italy’s mainland, I understood what they meant. As concrete buildings came into view, next to tarmac roads with roundabouts, it felt like I’d left another world behind. A world of intense beauty; it was almost dream-like.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Rialto Bridge coming into view around a corner. So much bigger than I had expected, my eyes took in its magnitude, its splendour, its design. I let myself stare, probably (I’m not ashamed to say) with my mouth hanging open a little bit. I’ve never felt like that before at seeing a famous piece of architecture – not the Eiffel Tower, not the Empire State Building, not even the Colosseum had that kind of effect on me. And then, as I climbed its steps, the Grand Canal came into view – I cannot describe how magnificent it all looked. I kept thinking of the clichés, like ‘a sight for sore eyes’ and ‘out of a dream’ – but this was the kind of stuff that clichés were built upon. This was the real deal. Perhaps the sight was a cliché of itself – the wide, turquoise-coloured canal with gondolas gliding across it, gondoliers wearing red and white striped t-shirts and straw hats. I’d seen this scene before in The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. Even so, nothing could take the pleasure and excitement of that sight away; my eyes couldn’t believe what was in front of them. There you go, another cliché, but then there’s nothing that hasn’t already been said about the beauty of Venice.
If Venice has been seen before, loved before, written about before, then no doubt it’s been tasted before. Venice has a proud gastronomic history: as a former major shipping port and an important stop on the spice route, it was able to covet delicacies such as cinnamon and coffee much earlier than the rest of the country, and so their culinary culture flourished. Nowadays, you can eat Italian cuisine at all corners of the earth (or versions of it, at least – I had a very interesting interpretation of Spaghetti Bolognese in Jakarta once!), but Venetian cuisine is still something special and not widely available elsewhere. Cicchetti – Venetian tapas – has become popular in London, although it is harder to find traditional cicchetti outside of Northern Italy, where the toppings (meat, vegetables, boiled eggs, seafood) lie on firm squares of polenta, rather than bread.
It is the historical Venetian cuisine that intrigues me, however. Course after course of indulgent dishes served at the lavish banquets of emperors, doges and aristocrats. Wild boar, duck, Fegato ała Veneziana (calves liver) and, of course, a whole spectrum of fish and seafood dishes – even the ‘Sarde in Saor’ (savory sardines) that Venetian fisherman used to eat at sea sounds exquisite; fried sardines in layers, alternating with caramelised onions cooked with vinegar and oil. Venice is also famed for its sweet biscuits, cakes and pastries flavoured with almond, ginger, cinnamon and rosewater.
And, where there is food, there is wine. Among its many world class wines, the Veneto is home to Prosecco, Soave, Bardolino and, of course, Valpolicella and the daddy, Amarone. The success of the region is largely down to the amazing range of indigenous grapes that have been cultivated in this area. White wines are produced from grape varieties that include Garganega, Trebbiano di Soave and Glera, while Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara and Raboso are the main grape varieties used to produce red wine.
I find Venice’s wine story particularly fascinating because of its history as an influential, bustling port. As early as the Middle Ages, wines were being imported and exported out of Venice (while we in London still hadn’t grasped the concept of hygiene and a clean water supply!!). The importing of wines from Greece, along with new species of vines, allowed Venetian viticulture to develop and, by exporting their own wines, a demand for them began to spread into Europe. When the trading power waned in the mid-sixteenth century, less Greek wine was imported and so the development of local wines from Valpolicella, Treviso and Vincenza began. Even the glass wine bottle and wine glasses were born out of Venice! Before this time, people used ceramic containers, but as more wine was produced, the glassblowers of Murano (where I stayed) made glass bottles and glasses, which found their way onto the tables of the aristocracy. When people started to associate glass bottles with quality wine, glass quickly replaced the ceramic all over Europe!
I love that you can still taste the history in the wines from the Veneto today. Recioto della Valpolicella is the oldest wine produced in the region and it descends from Acinatico, a sweet wine that was particularly famous after the fall of the Roman Empire – meaning it was probably drank before that by the most influential Romans in history! Julius Caesar drank this wine!! (Probably!) And then, Amarone. Well, that was discovered in a forgotten barrel of Recioto. The sweet Recioto had gone through a second fermentation to reach complete dryness and the oeneologist pronounced it ‘amaro’, which means ‘bitter’ in Italian. Of course, Amarone tastes pretty sweet to the modern wine drinker, but its balanced acidity makes it superb with rich savoury food, like red meat and truffles. It’s certainly one of Italy’s most important wines – it’s just glorious.
As I was only visiting Venice for a couple of days and wanted to make the most of this magical city without making excursions to vineyards, I found the next best thing to be a delicious tasting menu with some fantastic quality paired wines. On my first night in Venice, down a narrow street on my way to Piazza San Marco, I came across this intriguing little restaurant with people sitting outside at candlelit tables. I realise this sounds like a lot of restaurants in Venice, but I was attracted to the glowing red lanterns and then the menu caught my eye. The restaurant was called Bistrot de Venise and, after a little research, it sounded like they were serious about their food and wine: ‘In 1999, the Bistrot de Venise took its concept of blending culture, food and wine from the Veneto region a step further when it began to carry out research into Rare Wines and Historical Venetian Cuisine.’
I was lucky enough to get a late table and was welcomed to the bar at 9:45pm with a delightful glass of Franciacorta. Although Prosecco is the bubbly of the Veneto, Franciacorta is made not too far away in Lombardy, on the west side of Lake Garda, and is heralded as the Champagne of Italy. Like Champagne, it is produced using the ‘traditional method’, where a secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle. I have quite a soft spot for Franciacorta, having family from Brescia and memories of drinking it with them. This one was very well-received; fine bubbles and that lovely smell of fresh brioche.
There were several menus at Bistrot de Venise: A La Carte; Classic Tasting Menu; Historical Tasting Menu; Romantic Venetian Menu and a Light Menu, which thoughtfully offered vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes (I didn’t see that much elsewhere, perhaps because I wasn’t exactly looking very hard and was content with the prospect of gout by the end of my trip). It was certainly a coin toss between the Classic Tasting Menu and the Historical Tasting Menu, and in the end, although very tempting, it was decided that six courses beginning at 10:30pm probably wasn’t the way to go, and so the Classic it was to be. But an added wine pairing was a must! (It’s always good when you dine with someone who likes to share, especially when there are two options for each course – and two wine pairings!)
The menu was as follows, with the wines that Sommelier Stefano Cipolato chose to pair with each dish.
Marinated beef tongue carpaccio, quinoa and vegetable salad, mayonnaise with anchovy
– Colli Orientali del Friuli Ribolla Nera DOC 2015 – Ronchi di Cialla
Scallops in ceviche, zucchini and yogurt cream, bell pepper strips and Tapioca chips.
– Veneto Bianco IGT “From Black to White” 2016 – Zýme
Spaghetti with “Sepe in Tecia”, cuttlefish in black sauce
– Vina Cattunar – Malvasia istriana – Terra bianca 2016
Homemade lasagne with veal and white meat ragout, Béchamel sauce and Parmesan cheese au gratin
– I Vini di Emilio Bulfon Pecol Ros 2016
Duck in “Sauce Pevarada” with apple and red onion chutney
– Oseleta Zymé 2010 – Veneto IGT
Turbot fillet with caramelized tomato, black olives crumble, eggplant and buffalo mozzarella cream, lime and thyme potato chips (Bartolomeo Scappi, 16th century)
– Manzoni Bianco, 2017 – Sandre
Tiramisù “choux” according to Bistrot de Venise style
– Recioto della Valpolicella 2015 Le Bignele
Traditional Orange Crème Brulée with rosemary ice-cream (Goldoni cuisine XVIII sec.)
– Moscato Rosa DOC – 2014 – Tenuta Castel Sallegg
The selection of dishes were plucked from the cookery books of classic Venetian cuisine, as well as the history books, replicating the kind of food that you might have found on a gilded table in the 1500s. The cuttlefish spaghetti has been making tongues turn black in Venice for over a century now and the duck, served on a thick sauce of chicken livers, is a 16th century Bartolomeo Scappi recipe. I loved this deliciously rich dish and the pairing with the intense Oseleta Zymé was simply gorgeous. Why would you leave Venice to join the rest of the ‘campo’ when you had this at your dinner table? There was also the traditional “Crema Rosada” (crème brulée) with rosemary ice-cream, based on Goldoni cuisine from the eighteenth century. The playwright, Carlo Goldini, was an astute social critic of the time and made connections between food and social class, particularly using fashionable food and dining styles to satirise the wealthy characters in his plays. He probably would have had a ball satirising us during this sumptuous supper.
The modern cuisine on the menu was just as indulgent: a white lasagne made with a veal and white meat ragout with creamy Béchamel, which contrasted beautifully with the salty, crisp Parmesan au gratin. Zesty lime and thyme potato crisps decorated our turbot and our tiramisu came deconstructed in balls of choux pastry, with shards of white chocolate creating a spiky gauntlet on the angular white plate. Still, the palate was returned to the classic with a pairing of heavenly Recioto della Valpolicella.
I enjoyed playing a Venetian bourgeois for the evening. There’s nowhere else that can quite match up to the decadence; opulence etched on an entire culture. That’s what you seem to get with the wines of Venice – the thrill of history; the fables; the plays. Forgotten barrels. Clandestine trades. Men in cloaks exchanging bottles and secrets at the water’s edge. And then, the Veneto as a whole – a unique and special region that found its feet once the trade slowed in Venice, with these old, indigenous grapes that have thrived and continue to do so. Sink into a silky Amarone or let the brisk freshness of a Soave sweep you off your feet – what an exciting region and a mesmorising city.
Link: Bistrot de Venise