Sant’Erasmo. Venice’s Garden

Sant’Erasmo. Venice’s Garden

 

flags

These islanders are proud of their water entrance which is always a priority for Venetians however little used.

My first day back in Venice and I am on a day trip out into the Lagoon. I change boat at Treporti where my feet briefly touch the mainland, albeit an outpost of Italy which is still clearly Venice. A brioche and a cappuccino in the ten minutes waiting for the next boat is breakfast and an exquisite reminder of the sweet tooth of the early morning Venetian. On the number 13 boat I have only a small German family and the boatman for company. Like me they are going to explore Sant’Erasmo. I know this because this is the only place this boat is going. Three stops, all on Sant’Erasmo. The boat sits low in the water as we hum out further into the lagoon, surrounded only by pieces of land at water level covered in scrub. I get an idea of what Venice looked like before they built it. With every moment we grow further away from Venice itself and the profiles of islands I know. Burano is a distant memory.

The German father wears strange orange trousers with the seat and knees reinforced in brown tweed as though he might be going to crawl everywhere or shuffle on his bottom. On his feet are crocs and on his head a brown wool beret complete with tiny stalk. The mother carries a large rucksack with all the necessary, some of it strapped on the outside including a change of socks for the little girl who is dressed like Pippi Longstocking. In fact they are all so colourfully dressed I wonder whether they are in fact Dutch not German. The rhythms of their conversation sound German but above the steady thrum of the boat’s engine it is difficult to be certain. The boatman mutters Venetian dialect into his phone.

fort

The Fort at Sant’Erasmo built after Napoleon’s defeat was used as late as World War One by Italian soldiers. It is now an occasional exhibition centre.

Young, handsome, the Venetian is simply dressed in clean and ironed trousers, a blue pullover with grey collar and cuffs, sunglasses. I imagine he would smell delicious and it is delightful to watch him manoeuvre the boat with one hand as he talks on the phone with the other. Arriving at a stop he moors the craft and unchains the doorway still with one hand. Laid back does not begin to describe it. No-one gets on or off and the German makes a mime of looking for people, as in Why are we stopped? The Italian holds up two fingers – he has a timetable and we are two minutes early. Not a hundred feet away is a fisherman paddling up to his knees in the water, his boat rocking gently nearby in our wake.  Not a hundred feet away we could run aground and I realise that, laid back or not, our boatman really does know what he’s doing.

orto

Quite soon you pass the vineyards where they grow this local wine. Orto means vegetable plot and the wine is serenissimo like the republic Venice still takes itself to be.

Did I say it is sunny? And for an April day, very warm in the way that promises a certain summer. Back in England a sunny week in April can be all the summer we see. Not so here. What I love about Venice is that the seasons have more or less stuck to their guns. In Winter you will need a coat and maybe boots. In Summer the sand is so hot you cannot walk on it barefoot. In an unpredictable world these small certainties feel reassuring.

On this wonderful day with a blue sky I am taking a trip out into the lagoon to visit Sant’Erasmo where they grow many of the fruit and vegetables that feed Venice. When the local fruit-seller says the artichokes are ‘nostrana’ – ‘ours’ – this is what she means. In Erle Zwingler’s  lovely blog about living in Venice there’s lots more about the purple artichokes from Sant’Erasmo and all kinds of Venetian foibles. So I went to see this garden, second only in size to Venice itself, and found an entire island given over to cultivation and canals but also to birds, butterflies and bees.

flowers

I am jealous of the gardeners here. They seem to have no rabbits. No wire. No nibbled plants. Maybe being an island they have banished them. At home my globe artichokes are decimated by rabbits already this Spring. Walking the lovely canal-sides I am also struck by the no thistles and no nettles. Wherever drastic action is not taken at home, these become the foremost crop. So whether it is some generations of stamping them out or whether this is one more aspect of Italy’s charmed life I cannot say, but it is very lovely.

canal

One of the farms sitting in its own fields and canals

My guidebook to the invisible city describes Sant’Erasmo as a green mosaic and that is certainly what it looks like in the glorious sunshine. After a few hours walking I am hungry and my path has brought me back towards the boat stop where I landed. Knowing that Italians are never far from a bar and an aperitivo I’m not worried by the apparent lack of refreshments on offer. I know that round the next corner …. in the most idyllic spot … with its own private beach and some large shady trees – ah! there it is. The bar/restaurant that was bound to be there. It’s one of those places which could easily turn out to have a four language menu and a 100 euro price tag but I am in luck. It’s the local bar/pizzeria and I get a wonderful lunch of mussels and a view of the water.

restaurant

Mussels together with an Aperol Spritz and an espresso make the perfect lunch for another hour’s walk. The restaurant fills up while I am there. A pair of lovers, rolling each other’s cigarettes and stealing kisses between  mouthfuls. A trio of local working men, one wearing a gypsy bandana without a trace of self-consciousness. Gradually all the tables are full and the waitress moves faster and faster until they all have plates of food when she sits in the shade and lights her own cigarette.

mussels

I walk back up the island towards the church where there is another boat stop. On the way I see pomegranates from last year petrified on the trees.

pomegranates

In all my wanderings, apart from the German family who turn up here and there and the lunchtime crowd in the restaurant, I see no-one but some builders in a field renovating a house, a man walking his dog and a lady on a bike. I am gratified to be acknowledged by the lady on the bike with a slow ‘Buon giorno‘ and a nod of the head and I decide this is because I am dressed for April despite the hot weather. Venetians are never knowingly underdressed and would no more wear a T shirt in April than dance naked in the street. They are simply to discreet to see the happy tourists who make like summer in April with shorts and sunbathing.

church

The church, another boat stop (‘Chiesa‘)  and the local shop are clearly the hub of the island and there are about four islanders waiting for the boat as well as a young woman with small children and a dog taking the air. Nearby a duck submits to the attentions of her drake in an operation somewhere between mating and waterboarding. Seagulls comment in dialect and geese look the other way.

Time to take the boat home and here I am once more outwitted by the boat system. I get on the right boat going the wrong way when I change at Treporti and end up coming home via Torcello. The kindest thing I can say is that this is the scenic route. Nevertheless a grand day out.

Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Now this post does not have a title that trips off the tongue easily but hear me out. This is about the mind and the heart and how we may get the best out of them. In this context the heart is not some sloppy sentimental old dear hanging like a millstone around the neck of that great warrior, the mind, and rendering it less efficient. It is the winged Sufi heart, a warrior in its own subtle way. The Sufi heart is a thing of great beauty and wisdom, a connector between body and mind, a temple within which to worship which reveals that where ever you turn, there is God’s face.

Unknown

Did you know the Buddhists do something handy when they are meditating. If they are distracted by discursive thought they simply label it ‘thinking’ and return the attention to the breath. It’s a great technique. No fighting, no arguing, just name it and return to the present. Thinking is pretty much how we run our lives here in the West. It has had a great press in these parts since the Enlightenment, so much so that we seem to have forgotten all other ways of being. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is a wonderful tool and it does things we cannot do without. Following a recipe springs to mind. Reading instructions for your new chainsaw (aargh!).

Our minds are a bit like the government. They tend to hog all the credit for what happens when it goes right and to blame the rest of the system (the body, the heart) when things go wrong. Yet the mind is wrong about all of that for our actions are rarely, as they seem, the end result of careful consideration. We now know that the body is preparing for the action you have committed to (lifting that glass of wine to your mouth) way before our minds know we have ‘decided’ to act. Monitoring our physiology reveals that the brain is already enjoying dopamine to the reward pathway while you still think you’re deciding whether to have the drink of not. Our conscious decision-making and careful weighing of evidence is not quite as linear a process as it feels. If you don’t believe me take a look at The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

So the mind is not quite the action hero we thought. In addition, things not even accessible to my mind crop up all the time it’s just that the mind is very reluctant to acknowledge them. They may be of the elevated philosophical kind (the infinite nature of the universe, the apparently localised nature of time – what’s that all about??) but they may also be personal and hum-drum. Shall I go to my brother’s birthday party even though I am upset with him? Shall I tell my friend I don’t like the way her boyfriend treats her and of course he’s like the last boyfriend? The mind has a strong storyline about these things but the logical conclusion may not feel right. The heart has its reasons, said old Pascal, that reason knoweth not and while he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want at a party, he had a point. He was no slouch in the mathematics department, young Blaise, but he knew the limits of thinking. In tricky areas I have to ask my mind to take a step back and engage with my Heart instead.

So what has all this to do with eating? Put simply, it is interesting when you are contemplating what to cook tonight or put in your mouth right now, to try that Buddhist technique and label all that is going on within your head as ‘thinking’. Let your enquiry into what to eat become a kind of meditation from which a wonderful action can emerge. It can let the steam off the pressure-cooker of the brain and its constant efforts to do the right thing.

This very morning I ended up in the beach kiosk having a splendid breakfast, a departure my mind had all kinds of reasons for not making. Great decision, thanks to my heart.

 

And now finally, you’ve been very patient, a recipe. This is a great dish if you have mixed vegetarians and meat eaters at the table since it goes brilliantly with steak or roast chicken or fish but can also hold up its head on its own.

Mozzarella Stuffed Aubergines for four

You can make it a day or two ahead and bake it as needed. If you don’t know what time people are arriving, take the dish out of the fridge in good time and get your oven nice and hot. When they knock the door pop it straight in the hot oven for half an hour or so while they are having a glass of Prosecco and an anchovy puff. (I’m coming to those).

1-2 aubergines depending on size

2 packets of mozzarella

A large bottle of tomato passata

Start by griddling some sliced aubergines, lengthways, pretty much as thin as you can slice them. Brush your griddle with olive oil and either salt and drain the aubergines first or simply sprinkle a little salt on them as you take them off the griddle to cool. Now cut the mozzarella into convenient chunky strips and wrap each one in a slice of aubergine. Roll the aubergine up into a sausage.

aubergine

As each little roll is ready position it in a shallow oven proof dish. When the dish is full cover the lot in tomato sauce. You can either use a bottle of passata ready made from the supermarket, or you can use the same bottle of passata that you have improved.

How to improve bottled passata

Depending on how much time you have you can either :

  1. let it reduce slightly in a large shallow pan with some olive oil, salt, fresh basil and a smashed garlic clove. (Some people add sugar – you need to taste and decide.)
  2. or add roasted fresh tomatoes to the pan as well

If you have mozzarella left over you can put slices on top. If not serve the baked dish with fresh Parmesan. It makes great leftovers too. It is calorie heavy so make sure to eat it with a large plate of salad and a light hand with the bread basket if you’re watching the pounds.

Anchovy Puffs (Halloumi also works)

I hardly like to give a recipe for these since I serve them all the time and they are shamefully easy. Once upon a time I got the idea from a Victorian cookery book called Mrs De Salis’ Sweets and Savouries which I bought as a student. I also use her Christmas pudding recipe. However we will not be using Ruby the kitchen maid to make the puff pastry when she gets up to light the boiler. We will be using Tesco’s best.

Roll out your shop bought puff pastry (fresh is better than frozen but frozen will do). Cover the sheet of pastry with individual anchovies our of a tin or jar and cut round each anchovy leaving a margin of pastry so that you can make a parcel of it. Now brush round the edges with milk and roll them up into fingers or parcels – it is impossible to make them unattractive so don’t worry – and put them on baking parchment on a baking tray.

Brush with milk or milk and egg and put into a very hot oven (180 degrees) 10 minutes before you want to serve them. Serve with paper napkins as they are a bit oily and flaky as well as delicious. (You can put your Stuffed Aubergine into the same oven.)

Alice, Goldilocks and Heidi

 

Alice

‘If seven maids with seven mops Swept it for half a year, Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said, That they could get it clear?’

This is the beach in Venice where I have been spending some time. In May the weather is less exciting than this October photo but very beautiful. The breakwaters head out into the sea and in early morning they offer a great place to be alone with the waves. When life is busy and people are all around it can be a real breath of fresh air to make some space for myself alone.

Aloneness is quite difficult to achieve in Italy and even at seven in the morning teams of men are getting the beach ready for its grand opening on the 1st of June. They sweep the sand and pick up all the seaweed evoking shades of The Walrus and the Carpenter. They relay all the flagstones around the beach huts. They paint fences and mend awnings. It feels as though a great play is about to open and when the beach opens for business and the (mostly) local people turn up with their summer accoutrements to rent their hut for the season, the drama begins. The curtain comes down after the film festival in September and the beach is returned to the dog walkers and strange people who like to commune with the Absolute by the sea.

Goldilocks

‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’

This morning I am not there any more. I am in Germany which feels like a land of giants in comparison – the desk chair in the bedroom makes me feel like Goldilocks. About three us of could sit in it comfortably. This morning is a time of reflection before a week’s retreat and the first thing I know is the that my body will be grateful for a holiday from too much food and drink. Like you I do know how to look after myself but when there are visitors to share things with and places you’re never going to come back to it seems somehow wrong to turn things down so I have been saying ‘yes’ too often. Happily my body is making it easy for me to take a break since I can feel its longing to be treated with lightness and delicacy for a while.

Heidi

‘On a clear sunny morning in June two figures might be seen
climbing the narrow mountain path; one, a tall strong-looking
girl, the other a child whom she was leading by the hand, and
whose little checks were so aglow with heat that the crimson
color could be seen even through the dark, sunburnt skin.’

Last night’s overnight’s stop in rural Germany was a wonderful step back into another age and every dish came with home made buttered noodles and potatoes on the side in case you might have a corner to fill. My salmon (a feint towards health) came in batter with noodles and would have fed a family of four. I ate way too much! The delightful middle-aged waitress in a dirndl skirt was so smiley and hospitable I would really have liked to have eaten even more just to please her. In fact I would have liked to take her home with me just to be cheered up by her gemutlichkeit – that famous cosiness which Germany offers – whenever I felt glum. I was right back there with Heidi and her grandfather in one of my favourite childhood books. The idea of drinking goat’s milk and sleeping in the hayloft still lifts my spirits even though neither is quite as delicious as I thought. But there is in this a longing for simplicity and the love of attuning to what is needed.

So onward to Holland for some merciful discipline and some loving mindfulness.

The Fish Market

pescheriaThe Fish Market at Rialto on Christmas Eve

It was great fun to struggle through the crowds to the pescheria like a Venetian on Christmas Eve. Traditionally only fish not meat passes their lips on La Vigilia but on the other hand there’s no way you could call it a fasting day! Italian housewives are out until the evening topping up their extensive provisions for the banquets to come.

Traditionally I offer a Lobster Supper (festive, nearly calorie-free and no cooking) on Christmas Eve but Venice seemed to be pretty much a lobster-free zone so we had a variety of other things instead. The recipe I think worth sharing is for a simplified Coquilles Saint Jacques which came after the garlic and chilli prawns and before the San Pietro (John Dory). You can see the scallops in the picture above but sadly we ate them too fast to offer you a photo of the finished dish. The local baker had for sale Panettone made on the premises and melting Lindt Intense dark orange chocolate and adding a little thin cream made a pudding worthy of the name. Let me know what you think!

Of course the great thing with fish is that you can eat your own weight in the stuff without putting on a pound so a little chocolate sauce is definitely allowed.

 

Coquilles Saint-Jacques for four

One scallop per person, ideally with its shell (but you can use a cocotte dish)

2 x leeks trimmed and very finely chopped

100g of Parmesan or another hard cheese finely grated

A glass of white wine

A small pot of single cream

A handful of white breadcrumbs per person

A tsp of olive oil

Make sure the scallops are really clean. This is a given if they’ve come from the supermarket but not, let me tell you, if the fish market has been involved. Get rid of any sand and trim them if they need the membrane removing.

Poach them in a little water for a couple of minutes and then fish them out and set them and the liquid aside while you make the sauce.

Sweat the finely minced leek in the olive oil until it has nearly melted. Then add all the breadcrumbs as if you were making a roux. Gradually add alternate tablespoons of white wine and cream to the leek and breadcrumbs until you have a sauce thick enough to spoon over the scallops. Now taste it and adjust the proportions (more cream?, more wine?) and the seasoning. If the sauce is too strong you can add a tablespoon of the scallop cooking water.

Arrange each scallop on its dish and spoon over a generous amount of thick sauce. Allow to cool. Cover with cling film and set in the fridge until you want to eat them. Allow them to come back to room temperature and grate some cheese over each before putting in a very hot oven for ten minutes or until the sauce bubbles slightly.

This isn’t as grand as the traditional version with piped Duchesse potatoes but it does taste as good and you have no piping bag to wash. (Result!)  It’s really useful as an impressive course in a special meal as it can be done the day before.

 

In Italy at Last

paviaBreakfast at Le Stanze del Cardinale, Pavia

This was our breakfast buffet at a wonderful B & B in Pavia called Le Stanze del Cardinale. where Martina and her colleagues make you feel so welcome. In addition to the delicious bread, jam and cakes they insisted on cooking us bacon and eggs – perhaps because they knew we were English. In any case it was a great start to the last day of our journey. Pavia was another beautiful Italian city that we had too little time to explore but we shall certainly be back. The B & B overlooks the Piazza del Duomo. Gorgeous.

In a hop skip and a short ferry ride we were in Venice.

venice-2View from the car ferry to the Lido

After all that traffic and all those different stops, I arrived with quite a lot to do to prepare Christmas for friends and family in Venice. Not surprisingly the old IBS started playing up and I could feel a bad throat coming on. But I have discovered turmeric milk with the help of another blog called Cooking Without Limits and this has had a powerful effect on my system such as I would never have believed. My new packet of ibuprofen remain unopened! I knew that turmeric is a healing Ayurvedic spice good for inflammation and but it had never occurred to me that you could enjoy it with hot milk, cinnamon and honey or put it on your porridge. I can’t say for sure that the cold has gone but certainly I feel heaps better. I shall sprinkle it wherever I can to fend off Christmas colds.

porridge-2Here is the rainbow porridge with toasted flaked almonds, cinnamon and turmeric as well as a spoonful of sugar. I could feel it doing me good! I would love to hear if you try it.

 

From Asthall to Venice

dawn-lightDawn in Asthall, December 2016

Returning from Venice to London on the train via Germany, one of the fascinating things that tells you you’re changing region, changing climate, changing mentality, is the change in food. Food reflects all of these things : the weather, the appetite, the way people eat. Leaving Santa Lucia station on the night train you leave behind pretty good Italian station food : pizza and toasted sandwiches along with a fully stocked shop overflowing with the sweet things Italians love to give and to travel with. Biscuits, cakes, chocolates as well as different wines and aperitifs. By the time you hit the mountains, where the people speak German but are technically Italian, the food on offer is well on the way to including potatoes and dumplings with polenta as a half way house. The travellers boarding at Trieste or further down the line are differently built and the universal clink of ice in a glass of orange or red aperitivo is heard no longer. Beer becomes the order of the day.  The people begin to look different. As they get taller and heavier and by and large blonder, the  buildings change from the Italian flat-topped to the butterfly rooves of the chalets.

For myself I prefer the journey going South towards the sun and the sweet things and that I am about to do! Tomorrow we set off in the car towards Venice and I thought I would share the food with you along the way. Tonight, Asthall. Tomorrow, Calais. Watch this space.

My Italian Cook

 

marika

Of course Marika Seguso, pictured here in her Venetian kitchen, is not my Italian cook (I wish!) but my Italian neighbour. She is, however, the Italian cook who has taught me and so many others something about basic Italian cooking. Marika is a chef who now teaches the lucky few in her Venetian cookery school Aquolina.

It was at Marika’s exceptional B & B, Villa Ines,  that I used to stay before buying my own flat on the Venetian Lido and she is indeed the real deal, Venetian herself and married into one of the oldest Venetian families, Seguso, who have their own factory on Murano still making extraordinary glass.

The Italian Meal

A word here about the Italian meal which is so defeating to visitors. If you’re not in a pizzeria then you see four courses offered on the menu – likely more than you want to eat or pay for. Over some years I have observed how Italians allow the menu to serve them and how they are feeling, never the other way around. Most commonly they close the menu straight away and ask ‘What’s good tonight?’ The ‘special’ is usually just that – what was best in the market that morning. In my suspicious, English way I used to think it would be something they had made too much of! I was completely wrong.

In Venice at least, the cold fish antipasto is a must. The next course is the pasta/risotto/soup i.e. it is the carbohydrate course. Don’t be afraid to share this or to miss it out altogether if you’re not so hungry. You can move straight from the antipasto to the main course if you are so minded, but equally you can have an antipasto and a pasta and stop there with honour satisfied. One of the best tips I can give you is to order the first two courses, sharing if you will, and then to ask the waiter to come back and see how you are feeling. Unlike many English kitchens, Italian chefs are happy to take orders as you go. See what you feel like once you’ve had some food. You can then share a main course, have your own or do without. No-one will think ill of you for this and it means you can go to a smart restaurant without feeling you have to eat a good deal more than you enjoy. The horrible dynamic that many of us grew up with is completely absent in Italy. You don’t need to impress the waiters!

Typically a couple will order like this. Two antipasti. One pasta (largely eaten by the man). One or two main courses (meat or fish). One pudding. Not too overwhelming on the purse or the digestion.

Spend a day with Marika in her kitchen and you will learn to make gnocchi, risotto and an authentic tomato sauce. If you have longer she will take you to Rialto, to the fish market and you can learn something about food shopping the Venetian way. She is a very busy, professional person and a mother, but she always makes time to be kind to her visitors and to share her enthusiasm for Venice and for food. Last summer I saw the catering she provided for summer weddings in her garden and if you need a place to get married you could not do better. Let me leave you this morning with her recipe for gnocchi, a typically cheap, Italian dish, a labour of love for the ingredients and the guests.

Gnocchetti di Patate al Pomodoro e Basilico

Gnocchetti :

1 kg potatoes boiled and finely mashed – a ricer is good for this but if not available be thorough with a fork.

1 egg yolk

up to 300g flour

parmesan cheese to taste

s and p

For the Sauce :

a good bottled tomato pasta such as Biona

garlic clove

sugar

basil

s and p

  1. saute the garlic clove whole in the oil for a minute and then add the passata, more salt and sugar than you would think necessary and some of the basil.
  2. Allow to cook uncovered and very slowly, the sauce barely bubbling for an hour or more and it will thicken. Remove the garlic and basil.
  3. Meanwhile make a dough with the mashed potato, some of the flour, the egg yolk and the parmesan. (Start with 100g and then taste as you go.)
  4. Roll the dough in long thin sausages and cut into half inch gnocchi.
  5. Toss with flour and keep dry and cool until cooking
  6. Lower into boiling salted water and strain as soon as they come to the top
  7. Toss with olive oil and either keep to reheat later or serve immediately with the sauce and Parmesan. Strow more torn fresh basil.

Butter and sage sauce can be used instead of the tomato. For this saute garlic, sage leaves and butter until slightly brown. Remove the garlic and sage and serve the butter with the gnocchi.