Pleasures of the plague year
Lisa Hilton welcomes the locals back to Venice and enjoys a spicy nod to the city’s vibrant past
This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
In early September, visitors to the Grand Canal could rejoice in a spectacle even stranger and more wonderful than the preposterous beauty of that great sweep of water which forms part of the imagination of the world.
A floating glass furnace, an initiative by the Venice Glass Week, bobbed the craftsmanship of the master glass blowers of Murano to the heart of the city in a cobalt-flamed tribute to the visit of the French king Henri III to Venice in 1574, when a virtuoso display of glass-blowing was staged outside the Ca’ Foscari.
Four hundred and forty-six years are a mere wrinkle in the fabric of Venetian time, but as a symbol of the city’s vitality, at once mysterious and jaunty, la furnace galleggiante proved even more compelling in this strange year of silence than the summer’s other star turn, the octopus spied in the water near Piazzale Roma.
Because, of course, there weren’t many visitors this year. You could probably build another bridge to the mainland with all the articles that have been written about the extraordinary emptiness of Venice in 2020, the eerie space of San Marco, the newly refulgent sheen of the light over the Salute, yet presence, not absence was seldom emphasised. The presence, that is, of the Venetians themselves.
There’s someone from Bangladesh working in nearly every Venetian kitchen
Quarantine is old news in Venice. The enduring political and commercial dominance of the longest-surviving empire the world has ever known was founded in great part on the principle of isolation, which the Venetians were practising effectively seven centuries ago. While the rest of the world was experimenting with polyphonic psalm-singing as a Black Death prophylactic, Venice set up lazzaretti in the islands of the lagoon, which according to the historian Sanseverino had by the fifteenth century become the most sophisticated plague hospitals in the world.
Crews and cargoes were incarcerated for 40 days (hence quarantena), and when the unfortunate sailors weren’t being fumigated with juniper smoke, they passed the time with gambling, painting, music-making and football.
Usain, a waiter at Orient Experience in Cannaregio, says he’s going to miss playing cricket during the latest quarantine restrictions. Like many of his colleagues in Venice’s restaurants, he’s originally from Bangladesh, and like them plays for several different teams.
For Usain’s boss, Hamed Hamadi, an immigrant from Afghanistan who has founded three restaurants staffed by refugees, lockdown has provided an opportunity to reflect positively on the contribution made by Venice’s new generation of workers. “People don’t necessarily see it, but there’s someone from Bangladesh working in nearly every Venetian kitchen.”
The marketplace of east and west has always been a polyglot city, where the news on the Rialto could be heard in Greek, Armenian and Turkish as well as Venetian (a language which is still proudly spoken by most Venetians today), and, if you look, its culinary history is equally dense and varied.
In the sixteenth century, when the Venetian empire stretched from Lombardy to the Crimea, the merchandise of the known world was traded through its most exotic emporium. Cornish tin and Russian furs, Chinese silk and Baltic amber, and perhaps most precious of all, spices.
The earliest extant example of Italian recipes, the fourteenth-century manuscript of Libro del Cuoco (“Book of Cook”) gives a spice mix of cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves and saffron, and fashionable food also included cardamom, turmeric and chili.
Takeaway from Orient Experience is therefore less of an innovation when set alongside the beloved staples of Venetian cuisine such as baccalà and vongole than a return to the flavours of its deepest origins. Frangible vegetable pakora from Pakistan or Mantoo, an Afghani riff on ravioli rich with cumin and yellow lentils are a delicate, fragrant introduction to tangy “saor” style chicken.
The anonymous author of Libro del Cuoco was familiar with this sweet-sour sauce, which over sardines has become a Venetian classic, but which echoes recipes found in southern Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and North Africa whose origin in turn is the Persian stew sikbaj. Eating from Orient right now, feels like a reminder not only of Venice’s longevity, but of its capacity for endurance.
Food delivery bags, once a novelty in the calle, are now as familiar an addition as the Venetians themselves. The squares are filled with children skipping and playing football, the benches with masked friends sharing picnics. Across the lagoon, the air is so bright that you can almost believe you see the needles on the Dolomite pines, admired by small boat parties fishing and snoozing away the afternoons.
The mood of optimism introduced by the recent success of the Mose flood barrier, which has so far protected the city from the terrible flooding it experienced this time last year, is reflected in a new willingness to pause, to share, to say good morning to the spazzini, the rubbish collectors, or the cashier in the market.
And as long-term residents are rediscovering their home, a new generation attracted by its quietness, accessibility and sheer loveliness are beginning to repopulate La Serenissima.
At a recent (socially distanced) lunchtime drink at Schiavi, a Dorsoduro bar which has been serving Venetian cicchetti for generations, a seventh-generation fisherman from Giudecca chatted with a newly arrived Swedish theatre director, two English writers and a Nigerian designer. The menu summed up the sense of expansiveness and inclusivity which might prove transformative — prosecco and Spritz, naturally, but also a tuna and cocoa powder snack as delicious as it is surprisingly, orientally traditional.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe