by © Diana Viola
"Do you want to pay with check or spices?"
Dreamlike, elegant, and romantic, Venice gazes into the reflective waters of the Adriatic as if transfixed by her own beauty. A haughty beauty, she calls herself La Serenissima, but her exotic glamour was built on the most basic of food substances - salt and pepper. From these ordinary foodstuffs a great Republic would grow, one that would dominate the seas and be the middleman for trade connecting Europe and the Islamic world from 1000 to 1492.
Venice would call herself "the serene one," but the misty waters obscure her less than dreamlike past. Her thousand years of glory was a feat accomplished, not through romance, and hardly through serenity, but through a keen and aggressive instinct for business, through territorial warfare, and through the creation of an incomparable maritime fleet which serviced both greedy merchants and often equally greedy Crusaders going to the so-called Holy Wars. In the galleys of her ships were cargoes of spices and luxury goods. Hidden in those goods, there were also slaves, a human commodity that Venice traded up and down the Adriatic.
The area known today as the Veneto, extends inland from watery Venice which is the dominant city. Backed on the north by the Dolomite Mountains, bounded on the west by Lake Garda, the region includes the provinces of Rovigo, Padua, Treviso, Verona, Vicenza and Belluno. To put food on Venetian tables, Venice needed this area, and turned her eyes to domination of the inland cities as well as domination of the seas. When the seafood of the lagoons married the staples of the mainland, cooking in Venice opened wide with possibilities. see coryat below
The History of Venice before it was Venice: Salt and Survival
A cluster of islands dots the northwestern coastline of the Adriatic Sea. Swamp-like and salty, the islands are divided by lagoons so shallow that no ship can enter them. With this natural defense from attack by sea, a protective barrier forms about the islands. One could expect a village of fishermen to emerge, but with the Venetian's killer instinct for commerce, and the development of a powerful fleet, the city that would become Venice emerged above the sludge.
The waters around these island abounded in a seemingly endless variety of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans, all food which was easy to catch and made quick cooking. Herons waded in the lagoons and, in the 15th century work of Maestro Martino, we find a recipe for stuffed herons, which was also used for swans, cranes, storks and wild geese (Martino stuffed them with garlic or onions before cooking them over the fire - an early roast.) Coryat, writing in the later 1600's describes a variety of tortoises and ducks which swam on the shallow waters. These would be easily caught, though less easy in the cooking. There was an abundance of food, though cooking would perforce have been primitive. We have no record of the food eaten by the popolani (the general population).
The islands were subject to the tides and some would even disappear at high tide. What methods of cooking could have existed in houses built above flooding water? Where was the area dry enough to grill a fresh fish? Did the residents wait for the tide to go out before they attempted cooking? If so, where was the dry kindling for a fire? The first island to be settled was Torcello, but it was the highest island, one which remained dry through high tide that would emerge as the lead island. This was the rivo alto, (high bank) a name later shortened to Rialto. As an answer to our questions, we may assume that not the least of the attraction of dry land was the ability to build a fire for cooking.
One specialty of Venetian cooking reflects the early methods of preservation and cooking, and that is baccala, the salt cod used in the cooking of many peoples of the world. In Venice the specialty today is baccala all vicentina, a dried cod cooked in milk with onions, anchovies and cheese.
History gives us archeological evidence that the marshes that became Venice were settled by an unknown people, but legend holds that Venice began its true development as the the inhabitants of the Euganei Hills (Ligurians, Trojans, Slavonic peoples) sought defense against waves of attacks by barbarians. In popular legend the first was Attila and his Huns, but what is documented is attacks by the savage Lombardi and the Franks, led by a son of Charlemagne. With waters filled with fish which provided food, the islands were a safe refuge, but more significantly, these were salt marshes and salt was the most prized commodity to people who were cooking without the benefit of refrigeration.
This painting, "Duck Hunters on the Lagoon," by Pietro Longhi created c. 1760 shows quite well-attired gentlemen pursing what would be good cooking and a tasty dinner. We assume that the earlier Venetians would have been less elegantly dressed, but ready for good food.
With knowledge of the food of the inland areas, the refugees could easily understand the significance of salt to both cooking and preserving food, but the Venetians were not alone in recognizing the power of salt. Some fifty miles down the coast, the town of Comacchio had become the region's main salt producer. With a competitive zeal that outshines even the plundering CEO's of contemporary notoriety, the Venetians attacked the town of Comacchio, burning the citadel to the ground and massacring the citizens. Those who survived were forced to swear allegiance to Venice. The need for allegiance was not for mere dominance: Venice needed what the inland offered and salt was their main trade commodity. Comacchio never recovered their trade and today are known primarily for eels.
In early days, the Po Valley produced food, but the crops were subject to the vagaries of weather and harvests were not reliable. Venice needed to look elsewhere and the sea was on her mind. The inland areas provided metals and timber, both of which would be vital to building a maritime fleet, and both of which later be used for trade. Over time the agricultural area of the Veneto would provide Venice with rice for cooking risotto, and later, after Columbus' discovery of corn in the New World, corn would become integral to Venetian cooking in the form of polenta with its endless variety of toppings. Food trading was critical and grew as Venice's power grew: Venice imported pigs and wheat from Aquilegia, trading with them by sending onions and garlic from the inlands, as well as the inevitable salt. With the power and taste for luxury similar to a modern city such as New York, all goods flowed into Venice. In those early years, the prevalent grain was wheat, and Venice imported this vital food from the great wheat producing areas of Sicily, Barbary, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans and beyond. Venetian cooking is dominated by rice not pasta. The singular pasta is bigoli, a wheat-based pasta which raises the question of what type of wheat they were importing. The Venetians never developed the same methods for making and cooking pasta as the southern areas.
History of Venice Ascendant: Pepper, Sugar & Spices for Trade and Cooking
Given its position on the sea, it is logical that the Venetians became seafarers. Given their rapacious appetite, not only for food, but also for success and dominance, it is equally logical that they would develop into aggressive businessmen and successful merchants. Indeed, Venice's most famous traveler, Marco Polo, was a merchant. Though some scholars question the veracity of Polo's legacy, he has left some record of pepper in India. Marco Polo and pepper
Though warring with the Genovese for trade domination, Venice became Queen of the Adriatic. Her fleets were accompanied by an armed guard of ships known as the muda. These bodyguards were essentially gangs protecting the fleets from piracy. Venice may have been called "La Serenissima" but her people were not meek. And while Venice took command of the seas, she also swept inland to dominate the towns of the Veneto and their fertile fields which would ultimately give Venice her most classic cooking.
The Republic of Venice would begin in 727 by declaration and by election of a head of state, the doge. The doge was primarily a businessman, given to making profitable treaties, if not assuming power through aggression, and by the year 1,000 La Serenissima would dominate the Adriatic, trading with what is referred to as the Islamic world, a vast territory variously ruled by Arabs, Persians, Mongols, and Turks. With powerful fleets, Venice would contribute to the Crusades and in time would dominate routes to the Holy Land. The epitome of Venetian power would be St. Mark's Basilica and its attendant square, a glorious symbol built by Venice's theft of the bones of St. Mark from Alexandria and the looting of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. St Mark's basilica and square.
In a reign lasting until the Portuguese took command of the seas, Venice would be the main importer of spices and luxury goods, such as silks, ceramics, pearls, precious metals, carpets. Her fleets would bring the goods to Venice where they would be met by merchants from Europe who would lustily purchase the goods. Venice, less than serenely, would also traffic in the slave trade, transporting slaves brought up through Africa to Alexandria, and capturing "heathens" from the Balkans to sell to the Islamic world. This was done under the auspices of the church, justified as a means of converting the heathens.
Frederic C. Lane speaks of the pageantry and festivals of Venice, of the richness of the doge's robes, the masques, the "artistic mastery of government by pageantry." Where there is pageantry, there is food. The now faded Roman Empire had established the ostentatious display of food known as the banquet, and Venice followed suit. Her fleets and her regulation of navigation kept Venice's markets relatively well supplied, and even her lower classes were relatively well fed. Her acquisitions on the mainland gave added assurance that her granaries would be full."
The Republic would dominate until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and the Portuguese controlled the seas, after which Venice would go into gradual but glorious decline, but through history her food and cooking as well as her architecture, indeed her very culture would be influenced by the trade with the Islamic world. Venice owed this glory to her monopoly on a primary food commodity: pepper
Pepper for cooking and bartering
Pepper was known to the ancient Mediterranean world. Pliny was amazed by its popularity and almost predicted what would happen in Venice, stating, "Both ginger and pepper grow wild in their own countries, yet they are purchased by weight as if they were gold and silver." Ancient Sanskrit texts mention pepper which grows on the Malabar Coast of India and is considered the oldest spice used in India A form of long pepper (Maricha ushana) was used, but it was the dried pepper (Pippali) that traveled the best and became the dominant pepper of trade.
Arab traders had long brought pepper over land routes to port cities. Egyptian Alexandria and Byzantine Constantinople (in those days a Christian city) were of primary importance to Venice. Pepper was used as a medicine as well as in cooking itself, but it was also a commodity of trade so powerful that it was used as a gift to sovereigns, a bribe to judges, a part of a rich young woman's dowry. Pepper was a symbol of virility and power, and was used as a coin of the realm, sacks of pepper being traded for goods and commodities. Scholars puzzle over the use of pepper in early cooking, as the amount imported went far beyond its possible use in cooking. How peppery could food be? Though we cannot guess at the extent of its use in cooking, pepper had caché, just as imported aged balsamic vinegar today has its special aura.
We can safely conjecture that the Venetian seafarer would have been alternately lured or repulsed by the aromatic foods cooking in exotic ports such as Alexandria and Constantinople. Unlike today's tourist who will find a McDonald's for comfort food from home, there would have been no recourse but to try the food and cooking in each port. Whether the seafarer liked the food or not, upon return home, he could brag about his sophisticated awareness of exotic cooking. Venetians may have been among the world's first food snobs.
History of Venice and the Crusades
The Crusades had several purposes. They were conducted ostensibly to free the Holy Land which had fallen under Muslim rule, to stop the spread of Islam, and to unify the Eastern and Western Churches. As any student of history is aware, however, there are always underlying objectives, most frequently based on money, greed and territorial acquisition. Venice would exhibit her own aggressive objectives during the Fourth Crusade in the bloody and merciless sack of Constantinople.
When young and burgeoning, Venice was under the domination of Byzantium, the Christian world not allied to the Pope of Rome. Later, exerting her treaty-making skills, Venice sailed the waters freely and the city rose from subservience to become an ally. As a state, Venice stayed free of papal domination, and was welcomed in the Islamic worlds. Venetians were tolerant: they viewed Muslims as different, but not as infidels. Their free travel opened the thousand year reign of Venetian domination, and exposed the merchants and sailors to the food and cooking of the vast territories at the southern boundaries of the Mediterranean. Since young Venetian noblemen would spend years learning Arabic and bookkeeping in extended stays in the far-flung outposts dominated by Venice, it is no surprise that they would acclimate to the cooking of the Islamic world. So important were the traveling Venetian merchants that quarters were set up in foreign ports, as well as reciprocal, but less lavish quarters in Venice itself. These were called fondacos.
During the first three Crusades, the Venetians provided ships to the Crusades, allowing them to dominate the route to the Holy Land, but, with a few exceptions, the Venetians did not participate as Crusaders. That would change with the Fourth Crusade.
The Fourth Crusade lasted from 1201 - 1202. Doge Enrico Dandolo took advantage of a desperate Pope Boniface and conceived of a plan by which Venice could redirect the Crusade to Constantinople, though at the same time, Dandolo was making a separate deal with Egypt. Then in his 80's, Dandolo declared himself a crusader and set off at the head of the fleet, an army comprised of 480 ships. First he attacked the town of Zara on the Dalmatian coast which fell easily to Venetian force.
They moved forward to Constantinople, then a wealthy, gilded city, one with churches, Christian monasteries, palaces, towers, libraries, bazaars with precious goods, baths, and monuments. The glory of architecture was the Hagia Sophia, built by Emperor Justinian. With Dandolo's ship leading the way, the fleet attacked the city. This was hardly a time for cooking. What food they ate is not recorded, but their savagery is. These Crusaders showed humanity at its most bestial, not its most spiritual: they looted palaces and churches, tearing away golden treasures and holy relics; they maimed and wounded; they raped women, going so far as to break into convents to rape nuns. With less than a holy intent, they tore the altar of the glorious Hagia Sophia to pieces to steal its treasures. Constantinople fell. Victorious, Venice was left in charge of the city.
Influences of the Islamic World on Food and Cooking in Venetian History
We know the Arabs introduced citrus which took to Italian climates, growing as far north as Lago di Garda. Both lemon and orange juice were used in cooking pork pies as well as pies of baby eels, lampreys, trout, even squid. Almonds were among the most popular imports which the Venetians used in cooking in many forms: crushed, pulverized and made into milk. (A court table in Constantinople might serve a boned chicken filled with almonds which had cooked in honey sauce.) Venetians were cooking marzipan which is based on almonds and most probably was an Arab concept. Today one classic dish that remains in Venetian cooking is Sarde in Saor - sardines in a sweet-sour sauce. We can infer that sardines, a small fish, were plentiful in the lagoons and that the concept of cooking sweet-sour dishes came from the Arabs.
In addition to food and precious imports, trade opened the west to the brilliant thinking and culture of the Islamic world. Venice admired the craftsmanship of the Islamic world and copied many of the elements in its architecture, and its art. The architecture of Venice reflects the history of Islamic influence, and one bas-relief shows a camel laden with goods being led by a turbaned figure that probably represents a merchant. As gondolas, not camels, are the main transport in Venice it may be assumed that this reflected travels out of Venice. Arab caravans, many emanating from the
lush oasis that was ancient Baghdad, probably introduced pomegranates which were as popular as a design for textiles as in cooking.
Not content with domination of Constantinople, then the world's most glorious city, Venice conquered key Grecian cities that dotted the trading route to guarantee dominance. Crete would become a major supplier of cheese for the Venetians who obviously had no pastures devoted to grazing. Cheese was a major source of protein, one that could be used in cooking or needed no cooking at all. Crete was rich in livestock, primarily sheep . Crete offered three types of cheese, one called myzethra that was similar to ricotta. The Venetians were eating and cooking well.
Byzantine food often found its way to the table without cooking. The work day was long, fuel for fires was scarce and expensive. People often left the cooking to the owners of taverns. They offered pulses and vegetables in soup form, followed by lamb or pork, prepared in a cooking method that has never gone out of style - in a pit, the precursor to the barbecue. There was frequent use of garlic, onions, and leeks in their cooking, and honey would be spread on flatcakes fried in oil. Wine was diluted with warm water. After the ascendancy of Islam, Muslims would eschew pork, leaving pork cooking to foreigners. Fatty mutton was a favorite among the Arab world, but was not preferred by the Venetians.
Sugar replaces honey in cooking
It was the sugar cane from the new world that totally altered cooking throughout Europe, however, Venice was a precursor of this change. Honey had long been the dominant sweetener in Mediterranean cooking. Sugar itself probably originated in China, traveled to India, then to Persia. Some believe the Crusaders brought sugar to Venice, and, with her keen business sense, Venice immediately declared a monopoly on its import.
Coffee: cooking and enjoying: the coffee shop
The Turks brought coffee and its cultural use to Venice. To suit their Turkish tastes, merchants would stop for coffee at the Piazza San Marco. Europeans were not interested in coffee at first: coffee needed to be cooked, and cooking meant steeping whole raw beans to allow them to ferment. This was followed by boiling, a second step in a tedious process. It was not until the 16th century when the Turks began roasting the beans that Europe took coffee to heart and Venice opened a bottega del caffè, and, with her usual business sense, became the major trading port for coffee. The coffee house became a place to gather for literary discussions as well as the more risky discussions of politics.
New Worlds and the Glorious, Inglorious Decline of Venice
Two shifts in history led to the decline of Venice's commercial power. One was the fall of Constantinople, previously so lustily pillaged by the Serene One herself. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, in a form of retributive justice, in 1453 Constantinople fell to the hands of the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmet II. Venice had lost her most powerful trading post.
The second shift in history was Portugal's discovery of sea routes that rounded Africa to go directly to India, bypassing the Adriatic and eliminating the need for complex land routes. So strong was the Portuguese fleet that in 1492 the competitive Queen Isabella invested in a scheme of the Genovese sailor, one Christopher Columbus to travel west. Though Columbus was deemed a failure, the new worlds of the Americas were discovered. This discovery would bring food never before experienced to Italy in general. Cooking tomato sauce would be routine in the southern parts of Italy while cooking polenta, based on corn would become a mainstay of cooking in the Veneto.
Venice began its decline in trade, but the romance of Venice did not disappear. Then as now, the city was still a mecca for tourists, though during the Renaissance, the streets were filled, not only with tourists, but with Courtesans and their less glamorous relatives, the more bawdy prostitutes. The courtesans were a great attraction and there were some 12,000 of them, all dressed in red or yellow. If this was a result of tourism or the cause of it, we can only guess. It was said that the gondoliers were in the service of the courtesans and would deliver an 'unsuspecting' passenger to the home of a courtesan. Felix Fabri reports of visiting a courtesan with the high-minded intent of reforming her, but his description of the allure of the courtesan might indicate otherwise: "You seem to enter the Paradise of Venus. As for herself, she comes to thee decked like the Queene and Goddesse of Love."
Possibly drawn to Venice by the light, the city also became a center for artists, among them Titian, Bellini, Mansuetto, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo. Venetian art was sensuous and color was used with discrimination. This sense of light and color has affected the food and cooking of Venice: the red of shrimp contrast with the sliver of sardines, even the black ink of squid is used in its cooking the famous risotto nero - a risotto darkened by cooking with the squid's ink.
Almost a case of art imitating art, in recent years Carpaccio was the name given to the dish of finely sliced raw meat (no cooking here), created by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry's Bar. According to Cipriani, Carpaccio liked the color red and so the food was named after him. Is this romance or or is it business acumen, or possibly the Venetian combination of both, now invested in its cooking?
Describing the market in the Piazza of St. Mark, Friar Felix Fabri, writing in the 1800's, spoke of the fish, the poultry, the meat, and the fruit from abroad. He noted quantities of herbs and sausages. The cooking of Venice may have lost some of its Arab touches by then, but the port in decline was lavish with food.
Decline may have benefited the cooking of the Veneto and of northern Italy in general. Though Venice's conquests crumbled under the hands of the Ottomans, her control over the Veneto remained strong and the foods of the inland still provided a basis for their diet. Rice arrived in the fourteenth century and the Po Valley provided the perfect climate for its growth. The Venetians began cooking risotto and they cooked it with everything, from meats to fish to vegetables. Corn was brought to Italy after the discovery of the New World and polenta became a staple to sit next to the beloved risotto. Polenta was such a cooking staple among the poor that the over-use of this staple led to nutritional deficiencies.
Printing and the advent of cookbooks
If Venice was a city in decline, it was still a city populated by businessmen. With the discovery of the printing press Venice shifted its focus from vast open seas to minuscule pieces of moveable type and became a center for printing. From the end of the 15th century on, Muslim treatises on medicine, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics were published in elaborately decorated books, extending the Islamic influence and bringing the brilliance of their discoveries to western minds. The first printed version of the Qur'an was published in Venice in 1537 - 1538. The book held many errors and was a failure in its intent ot open and dominate the Arab-speaking market.
Printing meant cookbooks as well as other books and the 'chefs' who did the cooking for the titled, the very wealthy and the clergy were eager to record their methods of cooking. We value these books as the preservation of the history of cooking in all of Italy. In 1498 Apicius' work was published in book rather than manuscript form. We learn, not of peasant cooking but of regal cooking from the books of Maestro Martino, author of Libro de arte coqinaria (c. 1460) a work plagiarized by Batolomeo Sacchi who is more commonly known as Platina and whose books must have widely influenced the cooking of the day as they were reprinted in Venice in 1475, 1498, 1503, and 1517. Platina's work includes medical advice, as well as cooking techniques. Bartolomeo Scappi (do not confuse with Scacchi) wrote a book called Opera which contained his experience cooking at the highest courts across Europe. Scappi, a chef at the Vatican, included many illustrations that show the cooking tools then in existence. Among his many recipes, he wrote about marinades based on spices, and about Arabic pastry-making. He included a Moorish couscous as well as a trout alla tedesca (German style) in his compendium. We see recipes that may give an indication as to the cooking in Italy in general and in Venice in particular. Pomegranates were made into a relish for chicken. Pomegranate juice mixed with spices might be thinned with rose water or the juice of grapes or grated sour apples.
Lungs, both of kid and lamb, were used. Not only do the cooking instructions read to boil them, but the kid's lungs were to be pounded with a mallet after boiling. This has disappeared from cooking books, and we don't need to ask why they have not remained but gotten lost to history. The Islamic influence is shown in Scappi's Saracen style sauce: "
If you want to make a Saracen style sauce, take almonds, currants, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, grains of paradise, cardamom, galangal and nutmeg. Mix/grind everything together and temper with verjuice, this is a good sauce." No measures are given and this is lost to cooking today.
The last word, as always, belongs to Shakespeare:
Othello: "Set you down this, And say besides that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by the throat the circumcised dog And smote him - thus."
1 -Writing in the 1600's, Thomas Coryat wrote, "Albeit they have neyther meadows, nor pastures, nor arable grounds neare their city...they have as great abundance of victuals, corne and fruites of all sorts whatsoever...being plenteously ministred unto them from Padua, Vicenza, and other bordering townes and places of Lombardy....As for their fruits, I have observed wonderful plenty amongst them, as Grapes, Peares, Applees, Plummes, Apricockes; Figges most excellent of three or foure sorts....another special commodity when I was there, which is one of the most delectable dishes for a Sommer fruite of all Chistendome, namely muske Melons."
marco polo on pepper st. mark's basilica and square the fondacos
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