Christmas presents come in two categories – the wanted and the other ones. The debate about recycling unwanted gifts has rolled on for years. I am ruthless about disposing of the unwanted. No need for that with my Christmas booty this year.
One present stood out. I usually have a heart-stop moment when anything references Venice – La Serenissima has played an essential role in our lives for nigh on 20 years – a blink in the eye for the city’s history. Venice is small, so after a few visits you get to know the place pretty well – cafes and bacari become as familiar as the butcher we shop at on Guidecca who plays golf every Tuesday, the best stalls in the Rialto, or the shop that sells the most delicate gnocchi on Campo San Barnaba, but sells out by 11am.
My shirtmaker for these past 20 years, Camiceria San Marco, who I prefer to visit before lunch so as to at least try and be sensible – Suzanne, the proprietor, allowed me design my own collar and it sits in a cardboard box in her desk drawer along with others far more famous than I’ll ever be. We’ll pass over the number of Jermyn Street shirtmakers who have since introduced a similar collar – but ideas can’t be protected and I’d prefer shopping from bolts of shirt fabric from the mills at Mestre in Calle Vallareso than mooching along Jermyn Street anyday.
Knowing Venice just a little is wonderful – we’ll never know anything like it all – so we are ever mindful of Ruskin’s advice about the importance of getting lost there too. We do it regularly and make discoveries – other times to come to a dead halt at the water’s edge and having to turn around and retrace back to somewhere familiar – invariably a bacari (a bar).
We would always advise friends to rent an apartment – this way you start within hours of arrival to find the pulse and live at that pace. Venice boasts more fine hotels than most cities on the planet, but you still live in that falsehood of ‘hotel time’.
My special present from other Venice lovers, Sarah Forss and family, was a relatively new book titled ‘Café Life Venice’ by Joe Wolff. Like crime writer, Donna Leon’s hero, Inspector Brunetti, I love nothing more than picking my way across the city calling into bars for a coffee or a Spritz (one of the many hangovers from the Austrian influence that adds another layer of specialness to one of the world’s most cultured cities).
Leon has just published her 12th Brunetti thriller and her accuracy of routes across Venice are remarkable – for the avid fan, she even does her own personally led tours of Guido Brunetti’s many hang-outs. Brunetti is a man who loves his food and enjoys the thinking time found in noisy bars.
Wolff made his selections with photographer Roger Paperno – I thought Wolff himself might have taken the shots using a simple camera as they are mostly immediate, insightful and alive. A wonderful book – just don’t be seen walking around Venice with it under your arm, nor any other guide book for that matter.
Venetians, taking a leaf from the Arabs and Turks, prefer not to drink wine or alcohol without food – hence cichetti. Like Spain’s tapas, cichetti are tiny, tasty morsels – as plain as a half boiled egg or slice of salami, to the complex and delicious nervetti, made from the tendons carefully removed from a calf’s foot – gently boiled until tender and then dressed when cool with chopped onion, white wine vinegar and parsley. Mortadella is cut into rough cubes and held onto tiny rounds of bread with a toothpick and perhaps a sliver of mostarda de Cremona. Or baccala mantecato (a rich creamy paste made from salt cod) spread onto little toasts. Other bars offer polpette (breaded meat cakes, hand made, rolled and flattened into discs the size of a slice of salami. Always, everything is wrapped at one edge in a white paper napkin and handed direct to the customer. It’s always simple, but at the same time enchanting food – that someone has gone to so much trouble to produce a tiny one or two bite morsel.
Also special are tramezzini – literally ‘something in the middle’. These are sandwiches made from a special damp white bread that originates in Austria. I have tried too many times to count on two hands to establish tramezzini in London and every time the deal has fallen through for this aristocrat among sandwiches.
The sandwich alone is not enough – it has to be the tiny bar, wine from the jug, coffee and chatter. We learned the technique over visits in two bars – one at Accademia and the other run by an ex-gondolier on the edge of Cannaregio (it looks like La Cantina on p27). Maybe in 2012 I’ll try one more time. Tramezzini is a rich enough subject for me to write many articles – they deserve a book – maybe that too is a project for the New Year.
Wine dominates, as Wolff’s book makes clear – this includes the region’s Prosecco – now sold across Britain in supermarkets, with some far better than others and with prices that have climbed with its popularity as low price fizz. Prosecco straight, always in a tiny flute, as an ombra (a little drink in the shade from the hot sun outside – imagine they have one five letter word to describe that occasion). Prosecco and white wine can be taken ‘con Bitter’ or con Aperol – ‘Bitter’ (pronounced ‘bit-air’) is the correct Italian for Campari – Campari is a brand, ‘Bitter’ is the drink – look at the label and all will come clear. Order a Campari in Venice and you’ll be served the non-alcoholic, ready mixed Campari Soda.
Come autumn there’s fragola – as in strawberry – because this highly effervescent, new wine has a nose of fresh strawberry. Usually sold from huge glass containers protected by straw inside a heavy wired basket, fragola, has a habit of exploding. It does not travel, so enjoy it only in Venice and the surrounding countryside – you’ll never find it exported into a supermarket because some things remain special and precious – they’ve mostly messed up Prosecco, so please leave somethings alone. Drinks are almost always served in small glasses – it’s not the Venetian way to over-indulge – even enoteca’s (wine shops) serving fine wines use elegant, over-sized glasses with a tiny amount of wine in the bottom.
Wolff’s book covers 17 bars across just five of Venice’s sestieres. By leaving out Guidecca – a centre of Blue Collar Gastronomy if ever there was – with its Caffe Palanca, Da Mori and the other one on the first floor in the boat yard round the back who’s name I don’t even know, stay off the tourist trail – thanks for that too Mr Wolff. Discovery is at the route to delight – Café Life Venice just gets you started.
I specially like this because in life some things should remain precious. The 17 will get the newcomer excited and started on what will become a lifetime obsession – Venice. From there they can ‘lose themselves’ as urged by John Ruskin and find their own.
In Venice, around every corner lies a treasure. You just have to open your heart and mind to appreciate that. Remember the Venetians gave us table manners and forks – spices, silks, caviar, dried fruits, gold, precious stones and more entered Europe via this magificent city on legs (every building’s foundations are giant wooden staves driven into the sea bed). It’s had its ups and downs, but La Serenissima’s allure has never lessened.
Thank you writer and sleuth Joe Wolff and a very public thank you to Sarah for my very special Christmas present. Somehow, some way we’ll be flying into Marco Polo and boarding a twin engined water taxi sometime soon. We married there in 2000 and I need some new shirts. I’ve a new collar in mind.
Get there soon after Carnival when the city regains its own character and we can enjoy the first young vegetables from islands in the lagoon – including the speciality of castraure which are tiny artichoke heads, so tender they are eaten whole – simply steamed or roasted with olive oil. They are prized because there is only one such head per plant – by removing the castraure, the plant will go on to produce anything up to 18 more more normal sized heads that season.
Aaah La Serenissima.
NB: Café Life Venice by Joe Wolff (ISBN 978 1 905214 61)