Wednesday, June 14, 2006

La Serenissima

La Serenissima is a major brand of dairies here but no, I am not going to talk about the lack of variety in Argentine dairy products. I am referring to the original La Serenissima - Venice. Friends are heading over to Italy soon so I offered to leaf through my "stuff" to find interesting places to eat and drink in the land of La Dolce Vita.

Most people think of Venice as a tourist trap, you know what? The Venetians couldn't agree more! On the subject of trappi turistichi (tourist traps), Venetian friends asked me "How could people buy those tacky glass bits and bobs masking as Murano glass?""How could people order those ghastly tourist set menus?""How could...""How could..." I don't have the answer, it is just like asking why some men and women desire fake boobs, why most of us continue to eat food packed with chemicals and colouring, why people feel the need to own an oil guzzling, air polluting 4x4 when they only ever drive on perfect tarmac, why George W is president; we all have our own list of questions without answers.

For me, however, Venice will always be The Most Serene. The glorious Old World is still alive and kicking; I love standing on the deck of a vaporetto, every time it turns a corner on the Grand Canal, some magnificent creation of mankind is literally in my face, forcing my acknowledgement. Yet, less than half an hour by speedboat, I could be walking on deserted sand dunes on the World's narrowest island - Pellestrina.

I love the food in Venice. The Venetians live off the sweet morsels from the lagoon and flavoursome vegetables from the Veneto. If there is still a gap in their stomach, they certainly know to fill it with pastries from the revered Puppa or Tonolo. Of course, you can follow the guidebooks and go to Harry's Dolci, Da Fiore, pay London prices and have a meal which you could have in a good restaurant in any capital city. I, however, am a paid-up member of the "when in Rome..." school. I had my best meals in Venice in the homes of Venetians, with one exception.

Antiche Carampane is decidedly anti-tourists. It is one of the hardest places to locate in Venice (I was lost and chanced upon it in a narrow calle leading to a quite square). Their attitude towards tourists is summed up on the sign by the door: no pizza, no spaghetti Bolognese, no decaf, no American Express. I vaguely recall it also mentioned a charge for tourist information...

I read the sign and knew immediately I had stumbled across a very special place. I opened the door, everyone looked up from whatever they were doing - it was late in the afternoon, aging locals were playing cards and sipping fragolina (sweet white wine with a hint of strawberry). It was quite intimidating but I thought I'd give it a go anyway, so I walked up to the Signora at the counter and politely muttered something about a prenotazione. I was met with a warm smile and a nod. The old dudes were still watching my every move but the suspicious glint in their eyes disappeared and was replaced by approval.

When it came to the meal that evening, I asked the same Signora to advise me on what to have. Her choices opened my eyes to honest Venetian food; I had raw shrimps with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil, the sweet freshness of the shrimps just blew me away; only sushi at the Tsukiji market at 5:00 am was comparable. It was followed by grilled local fish with radicchio di Treviso, simply flawless. Pudding was typically Italian, some gianduia (chocolate and hazelnut) concoction. The portions were generous, the service attentive and unfussy. Il conto was very reasonable for the quality and quantity. On my second visit (I went back more than a few times - in life, you don't just let a good thing go), La Signora even offered to let me pick a wine gum from her commanding glass jar on my way out, she said goodnight and gave me a wink. At that precise moment, I fell in love with Venice all over again.

A reason for the abysmal dining in Venice is the Venetian habit of snacking throughout the day. They even have a local slang for the word "snacks", cicheti. I certainly was offered food, and therefore, eating all the day long. One early morning, after visiting the fresh produce market at the Rialto; I walked along the Grand Canal, away from the Rialto square. Just off the main square where the vendors were, I found a little bar selling panini stuffed with various delicacies: prociutto, wild rocket, etc. I bought one with an ombra (small glass of sweet white wine) for 2.50 euro. I set down on the steps by the Grand Canal and had the best breakfast of my life.

However, the best ombre e cicheti to be had are at All'Arco, packed with locals (always a good sign) standing with a glass in one hand and a snack in the other. The folks there do a brisk trade - all cash. Due to it's popularity, it can be a Soup Nazi experience for the uninitiated. I think I had my first taste of horse meat there...

I am partial to Italian biscuits because while the rest of the world dips their biscuits in tea, coffee or milk, the Italians dip theirs in Vin Santo. Most people think of biscotti as long dry slices dotted with nuts or chocolate chips. Those are Cantuci, easily found in Tuscany and now, Starbucks' all over the world. I learnt to make some very buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, biscotti called Buranelli at Bruno Barovier’s home in Murano. His ancestors moved to Murano in 13th c. Their name is synonymous with Murano Glass; many earlier pieces are now in museums all over the world. I didn't witness his blowing skills but his cooking certainly was not shabby.


Buranelli originated from the sleepy residential island of Burano (see image). The island is known for the colourful houses - Venetians told me the trend started centuries ago when the Buranese husbands got too drunk to recognise their own front door after a night out with the boys, so their wives painted the house a different colour from their neighbours...
The dough for these biscotti should be stiff, not crumbly like shortbread, making it easier to form into a tight S shape. Make 48.
150g soft butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 large egg yolks
3 cups all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 180C. Line baking trays with parchment. Set aside.
In the bowl, combine butter and sugar. Beat with electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, lemon zest, and salt. Beat to combine. Add egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, until fully combined. Reduce speed to low, and add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating until fully combined.
Roll a walnut-size piece of dough into a ball, then roll out into a rope about 3 inches long and 1/4 inch in diameter. Shape into a decorative S. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, placing cookies about 1 1/2 inches apart on baking sheet. Bake until firm, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

The cookies will keep in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. Enjoy them with a glass of sweet white wine. If after making buranelli at home, you happen to go to Venice and find them there in a deep primrose colour, don't be alarmed, it is not food colouring. Good Italian eggs have almost orange colour yolks - eggyolks are called i rossi (the reds).
Antiche Carampane San Polo 1911, rio terà delle Carampane (041 524 0165)
All'Arco San Polo436, calle dell'Ochialer (o41 520 5666)
Puppa Cannaregio 4800, calle del Spezier (041 523 7947)
Tonolo Dorsoduro 3108B, rio terà Canal (041 528 9014)



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