I adore Salvo Montalbano but I could never live with him. Not that he’s asked. On the other hand, were Commissario Guido Brunetti (www.DonnaLeon.net) ever to grow tired of his devoted wife, Paola, abandon his children, Raffi and Chiara, and seek a new entanglement, I would be tempted.
Brunetti is erudite, urbane, compassionate and incorruptible. Sure, you may question Brunetti’s silent endorsement of the machinations of the divine Signorina Elettra, but that is not corruption. It is how things must be done in Italy’s tortuous bureaucracy. It is expedient to look the other way as she hacks yet another government computer system.
Brunetti is a family man. He goes home for pranzo, his lunch, whenever he can, as do the children. Paola, a teacher at the University, manages somehow to prepare a three course meal each day. Depending on what she finds at Rialto market (the daily fruit and vegetable market serviced mostly from the island of St Erasmo), it might be risotto alla veneziana, zucchini alla menta (zucchini with mint), or capesante al limone (scallops with lemon dressing). Desserts are often simple, perhaps spumone di zabaione (zabaglione mousse), or just fresh fruit, followed by an espresso. She is a goddess. I can’t compete.
On those long days when Brunetti is on one of the islands or deep in paperwork at police head quarters, he might grab a solitary tramezzino, Venice’s version of a sandwich. Then there are times when the vain and self-important Vice Questore Patta is absent or preoccupied, and Brunetti might steal away with his gracious and hard working partner, Ispettore Vianello. Sometimes, between courses, they discuss the investigation but at other times, they eat in companionable silence. Their values and honesty bind them together.
Commissario Brunetti’s approach to food is part nourishment, part habit but most of all it is acknowledgement of the power of food to restore the body and the soul. When he comes home late to find Paola curled up on the sofa reading Henry James, the remains of his missed meal still evident, he realises that he has squandered an opportunity to be an ordinary man, a husband and father who can tell stories and listen to gossip. Instead, he is a man who has seen blood and savagery and calls it a normal day’s work:
“He had fled his office in search of peace and quiet, seeking some evidence that sanity still existed in a world of violence and crime, and his wife suggested they spend an hour eating pastry and buying a loaf of bread. He leaped at the chance”. (Blood from a Stone.)
When I take small tour groups to Venice, I make sure I do at least five things. Firstly, I book a walking tour with Dr Toni Sepeda – Brunetti’s Venice (firstname.lastname@example.org). We are enthralled by the engaging Dr Sepeda as she weaves her way through the calli and the campi. She begins at La Fenice, Venice’s opera house, where perhaps earlier that evening Brunetti and Paola may have ordered a prosecco or a spritz at Ristorante Antico Martini. We follow him home to San Polo by vaporetto, then a traghetto and finally on foot, as he battles the waves of tourists down the narrow passageways. He may stop, as we do, at Do Mori for un’ombra ed un cicchetto, a bar snack always served with drinks in Venetian bacari or wine bars. The influence of Venetian dialect is pervasive. The common expression “andemo bever un’ombra” (‘let’s go for a drink’) comes from the tradition of having a morning or afternoon break by drinking a glass of wine while sitting in the shade (ombra) of the Campanile in St. Mark’s.
Unlike Commissario Montalbano, Brunetti has a sweet tooth. He is inordinately fond of cream filled swan pastries and has a passion for pane pugliese. The area around Campo San Pantalon contains some of Venice’s finest pastries, cheese, fresh pasta and bakeries. Here, Brunetti often calls into the corner bakery, Tonolo. I had to laugh when I read these lines in Through a Glass, Darkly:
“he went down to Tonolo for a coffee and a pastry. Because he had had no lunch to speak of, he had two: a cream filled swan and a tiny chocolate eclair as light as silk.” Well done, Commissario.
The second thing I do in Venice is book our group into a cookery class at Peccati di Gola. (www.peccatidigola.info) Here, in a private palazzo, just off the Grand Canal we watch the experts at work and then dine in the elegant dining room. It has never disappointed.
Thirdly, we book an opera at La Fenice. We dress up and wander about its graceful campo, listening to the excited chatter of other groups in front of the Church of San Fantin with its Renaissance facade. If our trip is later than usual and we miss the season then we book Musica a Palazzo. Our little group joins a few others in the 15th C palazzo of Barbarigo Minotto. The audience follows the performers from room to room, from salotto to camera da letto, with each new act. It is a treat.
Then, I like to plan at least two special meals – one on the island of Torcello at Locanda Cipriani – it’s a sophisticated night, drinking bellini in the garden, then sitting down to ‘old school’ chic dining. As a contrast, I also like to eat at Da Marisa – seafood, meat or game depending on Marisa’s mood, oozing with flavour, washed down with cheerful house wine – right on the canal in Cannaregio. There is no menu for the five-course, fixed price meal of expertly prepared Venetian food. If the weather is pleasant, ask to sit by the water. Don’t be surprised at the Italian habit of having an entire meal of fish dishes, or meat. Whereas here in Australia, we might like a seafood first course, followed by meat, it is not unusual in Italy to feature, let’s say a shellfish risotto followed by squid in ink, seppie nere in umido, served with polenta. The sainted Paola will sometimes serve a baked branzino (sea bass, we could use small, whole snapper) with roasted artichokes after a simple prawn salad with lemon and celery. (Honestly, she is impossibly perfect.)
Then, finally, we visit the cemetery island of San Michele. Our thoughts go back to how we started, with my hero, Commissario Guido Brunetti who knows this place all too well. Amongst cultural heroes of our time – Ezra Pound, Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, and Stravisky - are the graves and mausoleum niches of ordinary Venetians – those who lived their life on an island so magical that it leaves me breathless.
PESCE IN SAOR A MODO MIO - SWEET AND SOUR FISH MY WAY
Paola makes pesce in saor many times in the novels, particularly in the summer months when small fish from the lugana are plentiful and sweet. No doubt, as a family they have watched the fireworks for La Festa del Redentore, The Feast of St John the Redeemer, from the balcony of her parents’ Palazzo Falier. (Did I mention she comes from nobility?)
Mere mortals, like us, have to content themselves with a boat cruise to watch the fireworks on the third weekend in July. As a bonus, though, we can buy delicious pesce in saor, wrapped in a brown paper cone from a street vendor, before we board.
When I travel with groups, we always make a point of eating only the local specialities – otherwise what is the purpose of leaving home? But food evolves differently when it is yoked out of its natural environment. I have taken the liberty of making changes to a traditional recipe. (How I hate it when others do this.) The original is fabulous and there are many recipes, easily found, if you are a purist.
This straightforward recipe works just as beautifully with our lovely Tommy Ruffs or Coorong Mullet if you are lucky enough to be in the South East of South Australia.
I ask my fish seller to scale and clean the fish and leave the ‘beak’ and tail on for presentation but it isn’t essential to the outcome of the dish.
Photo credit: prepared by Rosa Matto for Rosa Matto Cooks (an SALife publication). Photography by Tony Lewis.
FOR THE FILLING (for about 6-8 fish)
This is the contentious part of the recipe. I think that its Sicilian/Arabic connotations are historically and culturally appropriate to a Venetian recipe.
1 whole garfish or other small fish/per person
(scaled, gutted and washed)
½ cup raisins
½ cup smoked almonds
¼ cup finely chopped flat leaved parsley
3 tbsp fine breadcrumbs (I hope you make your own from stale bread)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp South Australian extra virgin olive oil plus extra for shallow frying
½ cup plain flour
Make a loose paste by grinding together coarsely the raisins, almonds, parsley, crumbs, garlic, salt and pepper. Bring them together with as much olive oil as you need to make a soft stuffing. Open the fish up and spread a tablespoon or so of the filling on one side. Close the fish and tie them up with a bit of kitchen string.
Dredge the tied fish in flour, brush off any excess and lightly fry in olive oil. As you cook them put them into a pretty ceramic dish that you’ll bring to the table. Pour the hot, sweet and sour dressing over them while they are still warm.
FOR THE DRESSING
4 tbsp South Australian extra virgin olive oil
2 brown onions, halved and sliced lengthways
1 clove garlic, sliced
4 sprigs rosemary
4 bay leaves, fresh
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup dry white wine, see note below
1 tbsp sugar
Warm the olive oil and saute the onions until soft but not coloured. Add the garlic. Put in the peppercorns, rosemary, bay leaves, vinegar and wine and bring to the boil, reducing the volume just a little. Add ½ tablespoon sugar and taste. Adjust with extra sugar, and a pinch or two of salt, to achieve a pleasant sweet and sour flavour.
Pour over the fried fish and allow to marinate for a couple of hours.
Serve with some locally made dark rye bread.
May I suggest a Fiano from Coriole. S.A., or Scott Wines from the Adelaide Hills or a beer from your closest microbrewery.
Brunetti, and his daughter Chiara, can be coaxed into eating a Gigno alla Crema at any time. Venetian ones have pastry cream on the bottom and vanilla flavoured Chantilly cream on the top.
I thank my dear friend, Carmen Vining, for spending an afternoon teaching my students (and me!) to make these mood altering concoctions. Hers were perfect, theirs were outstanding – this is mine.
This recipe makes about 20 little swanettes.
Preheat the oven to 200C. Have all your ingredients ready and at hand.
200 ml water
50g unsalted butter cut into cubes and kept cold
1 tbsp caster sugar
½ tsp salt
75 g plain flour, sifted
2 eggs, large at room temperature
Put the water, butter cubes, sugar and salt into a medium sized saucepan. Bring to the boil, then remove the pan from the heat. Add the flour all at once and beat in well. Take it back to the stove and cook, stirring all the while with a wooden spoon until it comes away from the sides of the saucepan and forms a sticky ball. Using a rubber spatula, spread it onto a surface to cool, then scoop it up into a bowl. Beat the eggs in a bowl and add a little at a time, beating vigorously after each addition until the choux has a shiny, elastic consistency. The amount of egg varies with each batch depending on the mixture. Too much egg will make the choux spread in the baking, too little and the choux will be tough.
Using a piping bag, pipe the paste onto a baking sheet to make 20 little buns. Bake for 15 minutes until well risen and golden brown. Using the remaining dough, make 20 “S” shapes and cook these separately for 5-8 minutes.
Remove from the oven and turn the oven off. Using the point of a sharp, small knife, pierce the base to release the steam. Return them to the turned off oven for 15 minutes to dry out completely.
Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool.
Cut them in half, set aside the top half. Fill the bottom with pastry cream, then pipe whipped Chantilly cream on top of this. Carefully cut the top in half lengthwise, then set them in the cream at a jaunty angle to represent wings. Set the "S" in place for the head and neck. Dust the swans with sifted icing sugars to cover any imperfections.
200 ml cream whipped with sugar to taste and 1 tsp vanilla paste
250 ml whole milk
250 ml cream
125 g caster sugar
½ tsp vanilla paste
finely chopped zest 1 small lemon
4 egg yolks
2 tbsp cornflour
spiralled zest 1 small lemon, extra
In a small saucepan, combine the milk, cream, sugar, salt, vanilla and zest. Stir until simmering point. In a small bowl or cup, whisk together the yolks and cornflour. To this add about ½ cup of the warm milk and cream. Pour the back into the liquid in the saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly with the spiralled zest of the lemon skewered onto a fork. Allow to gradually thicken. If you have a sugar thermometer, it should read 160C at this point. Decide whose good behaviour merits the reward of the lemon zest to lick off the custard. Cover with baking paper pressed directly onto the surface of the pastry cream and allow to cool completely.