Are you really in the place I can see on the computer? -JD, 6
Last week I began an incredible adventure – a seven day whistle-stop tour from the cluster islands of Venice to Pisa, a meander through the Tuscan countryside, then on to majestic Rome and finishing up in metropolitan Naples with a front row seat before Vesuvius. Why? To walk, to listen, to watch, and of course to taste. And all in the name of discovering the meaning of True Italian.
Here’s the route I took along with Helen of Fuss Free Flavours, Mike Kus and our guides, Cirio, a real Italian product, one of the best sellers in Italy, with close production control from the earth to the fork, and over 160 years of #TrueItalian history.
This week I’m back, at my desk and ready to share my Italian adventure with you – what I saw, what I ate, what I learned and how it has inspired my own cooking.
Part 1 begins in Venice, the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.
Falling in love with Venice
I arrived in Venice airport late on Sunday night and took a boat to the main city. Climbing off the water bus close to midnight I was immediately struck by how different the atmosphere of the city is from anywhere I have ever been before. This city is something exceptional.
It’s the combination of stunning blue-green lagoon and breathtaking architecture that makes the whole of Venice a World Heritage Site. If you haven’t been, as I hadn’t, I know it’s hard to imagine walking through the streets and across the bridges adjoining the 118 pockets of land that make up the city. Let me try to paint a picture.
Venice is a history-rich, twisting collection on alleys and waterways. Almost everything is done by boat. You might see a floating vegetable market on one corner, followed by a furniture delivery being transported up the waterway; tourists on gondolas followed by commuters simply making their way to work by busy transfer boat across the wider stretches of lagoon.
There is a relaxed pace to Venice. People don’t seem to hurry or bustle and although there was definitely a considerable number of tourists in the city when we visited, the fact that it was earlier in the year than the traditional peak tourist season meant it was pleasantly quiet. When I visit again – which I surely will – I’ll almost certainly choose this time of year, when the heat is pleasant but not oppressive and the crowds are lively but not crushing.
One of things that really struck us as we strolled around in the evening was how sound travels. While engine-driven boats give off a rattling hum as they make their way through the main parts of the city, for the most part there is far, far less noise (and air) pollution then you might experience in any city based entirely on land. There were nights when we sat and could hear conversations going on 2-3 streets away – no traffic hum, just silence, voices and the soft movement of the lagoon.
Now, on to the food…
Lunch at La Palanca
We took a boat anticlockwise around the outer edge of the city to Giudecca, one of the cities six main areas or “sestiere”, and sat on the water’s edge outside La Palanca for lunch.
We started with Italian aperitif, Spritz – a vibrant orange drink, made with a combination of Aperol (made from bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona), Prosecco (an Italian sparkling white wine) and sparkling water with a slice of blood orange. It’s a drink born in the region, but now drunk before meals all over Italy. With bitter, orangey notes, Spritz prepares the palette for the sweetness of Italian cuisine, meaning that mean the first bite of tomato really bursts on the tongue.
Fish, of course, is a core part of the daily diet in Venice. We ate:
- Baccalà mantecato: salted codfish creamed in corn oil, a typical Venetian dish
- Pesce spada all’arancia: swordfish with orange and vinegar, piled high in finely sliced, glossy sheets with a delicate flavour
- Sarde in saor: sardine with onion, raisins and vinegar, another classic Venetian dish
- Pasta with tomatoes, anchovies and olives
- Pasta with parsley and mantis shrimps
- Pasta with olive oil and mixed peppers
The texture of the pasta is al dente – certainly firmer that you might get in the average UK restaurant – and the sauce coats and compliments the pasta, rather than overpowering it. With good quality tomatoes, you don’t need to drown it – the flavour speaks for itself.
The message here seems to be, take good food, native to the region, season, accompany with just one or two accents to bring out the flavour and then let the core dish speak for itself.
Dinner at A la Vecia Cavana
On Monday evening, we ate at A la Vecia Cavana, where we started the meal with simple bruschetta made with rich, fresh tasting Cirio tomatoes, a dash of olive oil and basil and a slightly briny edge. A sweet, simple, moreish dish.
We followed that up with dishes of pasta with fresh tuna, tomato sauce and olives, fish soup with tomato sauce, and cuttlefish with cornmeal.All simple, elegant dishes packed with flavour and texture.
Lunch at Trattoria dai Tosi
For lunch on Tuesday, we made our way to the Calle Secco Marina in the Castello sestieri and ate at the Trattoria dai Tosi.
We chatted with the chef in her tiny kitchen, who, to our surprise, turned out to be from Taunton, England. The matriarch of the family, she moved to Venice 35 years ago to be with her Venetian husband, and they soon acquired the premises of Trattoria dai Tosi. Learning to cook in faithful Venetian style from her mother-in-law, the little restaurant is now one of the best loved in the city. A surprising example of a perfect marriage of English and Italian culinary history.
I had very simple ravioli with ricotta cheese and spinach in a sage butter. It was so simple, and yet utterly yummy. Strikingly, each of the ingredients was easy to pick out – even the touch of nutmeg in the filling. Simple food, made well, with ingredients rich in flavour.
After another Spritz aperitif, I ate ravioli with ricotta cheese and spinach in a sage butter. A simple dish with subtle seasoning and a pinch of nutmeg. Genuinely delicious little parcels – I think we have a tendency to over-season in the UK – the delicate flavour of the ricotta and the pinch of nutmeg really came through without the need for salty tones and contrasted well, then, with the slightly salted sage butter. Beautiful.
There is no ‘spaghetti bolognese’ in Italy, we learned. The closest dish is pasta with ragù, a rich, slow cooked onion, garlic and tomato sauce with minced meat, stirred into al dente pasta. The slow simmering of the ragu is key to the dish – with the lid on, the flavour develops over a number of hours.
What I learned
For me, our trip through Venice was the beginning of a week of absolute proof that with really good quality ingredients, you don’t need complexity to produce exceptionally delicious food.
Have you been to Venice? What did you eat? And how has it inspired your cooking, or the way you think about Italian food?
Disclosure: I toured Italy as part of a sponsored campaign to discover ‘True Italian’. All words, thoughts and images are my own.