The Veneto Diaries . An Introduction to the “saor” tradition

When I think of Vicenza, I think of Andrea Palladio, and of countless hours spent sitting on the worn marble steps of the Basilica on the Piazza dei Signori. I think of long walks up the steep hill to Monte Berico and of staring dreamily at the river Arno as it winds around the city. I think of grilled polenta, of spicy-sweet mostarda and of baccalà alla Vicentina. I envision the smell of roasted chestnuts sold on street corners in winter; and of eating thick wedges of ice cold watermelon in the park while fighting off mosquitoes on humid summer nights …

This narrative might lead one to believe that the study of food and its origins has always been my focus. Truthfully, I consistently had my head in the clouds. Growing up in the entroterra of the Veneto was the perfect fertile ground for a romanticists’ view of the world. Wandering through the streets of Vicenza and Venice, my thoughts were filled with poetry, literature, art, architecture and a jumble of lofty ideas.

As a teenager, I accepted the culture of food in my surroundings very matter-of-factly. I recognized cooking as an integral part of the daily ritual of life, seeing it as a detail in the vibrant canvas of Italian life. The beauty of food and the moving stories it tells became apparent to me much later, when I recognized the emotional thread it had sewn so steadfastly in my life experience.

Just what does this have to do with cooking something that actually can be set on the table you might ask? Well, this long and winding narrative is two-fold in its purpose. Firstly, this post marks the introduction to a blog series entitled “The Veneto Diaries”. This collection starts with a recipe that reflects the historical influence of Venezia and the Adriatic Sea; so visible in the culinary traditions of Vicenza and the Vicentino love of fish.

Secondly, this publication marks the second in a blog collaboration with Tina Prestia, founded upon a shared passion for Venezia, for the Italian way of life, and especially for cicchetti ( known as spuncioti in the place I call home). I invite you to read Tina’s beautiful writing on the subject. Her blog post provides a remarkably detailed description of a wide variety of easily accessible ingredients, which you can utilize to make your own cicchetti party at home, while dreaming of traveling to Venice of course!

Meanwhile, I am happy to present the recipes that resulted from an elaborate study of the “in saor” technique, a constant source of fascination because I love all things that are pickled! Saor is the Venetian word for “flavor” and the Hebrew word for yeast. The in saor method is firmly grounded in the history of Venice and its surroundings, rooted in the importance of preserving fish in a place dominated by the sea. It involves the preparation of a warm vinegar bath paired with onions, which is used to marinate fresh fish anywhere from twelve hours up to five days! The mix of sweet and sour is a true classic, to be found in many different types of foods served in osterie not only in Vicenza, but in many other parts of the seven provinces of the Veneto.

The in saor method forms the perfect basis for pickling aubergine, pumpkin and beets. However, the use of this marinade for vegetables (at least by this particular name), is not as iconic as the use of vinegar to preserve and flavor freshly fried fish. The in saor method is comparable to yet another pickling tradition very popular in this region, known the name giardiniera. This method will be the subject for a future blog post, where the earthy vegetables mentioned above will take a prominent part.

The following recipes are inspired by the book “A Tola Co I Nostri Veci . La Cucina Veneziana”, written by Mariù Salvatori de Zuliani in Venetian dialect in 1971. In her book, I found not just one, but nine variations of the in saor preparation technique! While sardines in saor are most famous, Mariù ensures her reader that any fresh fish, including all types of flat fish from the sole family, as well as mackerel, and even sweet water fish from the Soligo river of Treviso work perfectly.

She is very flexible as regards the type of fish used, as long as it is very fresh. In her shorthand style recipes, she even mentions that sardines (which are most definitely the icon of in saor preparations) should be caught at sunrise, and prepared immediately if not sooner. Mariù is also adamant about the importance of marinating the fish long enough. After testing two of her recipes I most definitely agree; each in saor marinade mellows over time, giving the simple ingredients used a subtle and delicately irresistible flavor.

In the following recipes, I chose to utilize the fish that was fresh and able to available locally in the Netherlands, where I currently reside. Sardines were unfortunately not to be found at the market, so I chose fresh sole when making the classic recipe below. I am sure that sole can easily be replaced by flounder, sweet water trout, fresh cod or any other locally available fresh white fish. Shellfish are also sometimes used to make an in saor, so feel free to use scallops, langoustines or gamba’s.

Ingredients for Sole In Saor . as inspired by the recipe 127 Sardele in “saor” (ricetta classica) from “A Tola Co I Nostri Veci”

  • 2 fresh sole . cleaned from the bone approximately 250 grams in weight
  • 250 ml white wine vinegar
  • 125 ml dry white wine
  • two red onions or shallots . approximately 250 grams
  • 100 ml sun flower oil
  • 25-50 ml extra olive oil
  • 30 grams soft wheat flour
  • 30 grams of raisins
  • Sea salt

Descale and behead the fish, then fillet the fish leaving the skin on, or ask your fish monger to do so. Rinse the fillets in cold water and pat them dry on both sides. Sprinkle the fish with salt, and dust it on both sides with flour. Meanwhile preheat the sunflower oil in a skillet to 175 degrees Celsius. Once the oil is hot, fry the fillets on both sides a few minutes until the skin is pale and golden. Although not traditional, allow the fried fish to cool, before removing the skin. Set the sole aside.

Meanwhile peel the onions or shallots, if using. (I like to use red onions as I love the color contrast it gives to the dish). Slice the onions paper thin with a sharp knife or with a mandolin. Fry them briefly until golden and translucent in the oil used to fry the fish. Alternatively, fry the onions in a separate skillet with extra virgin olive oil, which I preferred to do. Add the vinegar and wine to the golden onions and bring the vinegar bath to a boil, then turn off the heat. Although raisins are usually reserved for the winter months, I chose to add a generous tablespoon to the onion and vinegar mixture, as it sweetens the vinegar and truly complements the dish.

While the onions are still warm, prepare the sole as follows. Place the fish and the onion-raisin marinade in even layers in a glass, enamel or terracotta casserole, making sure the fish is well covered. Refrigerate the sole in saor at least three days. Mariù is very emphatic about the importance of time passing in the process of making this dish, and I must say I agree with her! Serve the marinated sole chilled, perhaps with some toasted baguette and a nice glass of white wine, as part of a shared table dinner, or take it on a picnic, as is traditional in Venice on July 15th!

Ingredients for Baby Octopus and Local Brown Shrimp . as inspired by recipe 101 . “pesse in saor co’l vin bianco (maniera dalmata)

  • 250 baby octopus
  • 150 grams brown shrimp (or langoustines) . shelled and cleaned
  • 200 ml white wine
  • 75 ml white wine vinegar
  • 75 ml water
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 250 grams red onion or shallots
  • one carrot . approximately 100 grams in weight
  • 4 sprigs of flat leaf
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

This recipe variation came as a surprise. If asked to choose, Mariù explains in her uniquely individual telegram-style of recipe writing, that although this recipe is common in Venice, it originates from Dalmazia (known today as Croatia). Here, once again, sardines are mentioned as the most traditional fish to be used; but sole, mackerel or any other type of fresh fish is more than acceptable. I chose baby octopus and brown shrimp, because they looked the best the day I went to the fish market. However, I am certain that any small white fish, as well as scallops and even fresh tuna would work perfectly too.

Prepare this recipe by gathering the vegetables and aromatics as follows. Peel the onions and slice them paper thin. Wash and peel the carrot, peeling, then slice it into thin coins. Wash the flat leaf parsley and bay leaves.

Place the the wine, water and vinegar in a sauce pan and bring it to a boil. Add the onion, carrot, parsley and bay leaves. Add a teaspoon of seal salt and a few pepper corns to the pan, then cook the ingredients ten minutes. Add the baby octopus and shrimp to the hot marinade, then turn off the heat. Pour the warm vinegar bath along with the fish into a glass, enamel or terracotta container. Once cooled, cover the dish well and store it in the refrigerator. Allow the flavors to marinate and mingle at least 24 hours before serving.

It is absolutely delicious, especially with a cold glass of bubbling Prosecco. This story is to be continued! Meanwhile, buon appetito!

Risi e bisi

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Peas in their pods remind me of neatly planted rows of seeds, just sown in the vegetable garden. Homemade risotto made with fresh green peas is my favorite food of the spring season. This simple combination is called ‘risi e bisi’ in the Veneto. It is especially well-celebrated in the beautiful cities of Vicenza, Verona and Venice.

I look for the arrival of fresh peas at the farmers market every year. When I spot them arranged tidily in wooden crates, I snap a pod and taste the raw peas; if they are sweet, smooth and bright green,  I take handfuls of them home to make this comforting and vibrant risotto. 

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Radicchio and blood orange salad

 . Radicchio Variegato di Castelfranco Inspired . 

As the month of March comes around, I notice that my enthusiasm for root vegetables has deteriorated into something similar to lukewarm acceptance.

Meanwhile, my days fade one into another covered by a blanket of quietening grey skies. Although these words might sound melancholy, they are simply a reflection of the times. Actually, I am grateful for the arrival of late winter and for the goodness of crisp, bitter leaves. This is the season for gathering ideas about the beautiful radicchio.

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Polenta . part viii . almond polenta cake

. Sweet polenta ideas from Biagio d’Angelo . 

Polenta is the new yellow and my Marostica memories 

You might been to the small town of Marostica, one of the most fascinating and romantic places in the Veneto, famous for it’s real-life chess game event. Back in my university days I had the luck to actually live there. It was here that I became friends with Claudio, a true artist and art critic, who decided to Economics to make his family happy, despite his aesthetic heart. Many years have passed since then, but I it is with Claudio that reminisce, sharing the marvelous memories of our university days.

Claudio tells me that although many are familiar with his home town, I lived the life of a “prince” with the place. Allow me explain what he meant. When I was a student, I was unable to travel home to Sicily very often to stay with my parents, so I spent many a grateful weekend at Claudio’s parents’ house. It was here that I enjoyed holidays and late nights, where Daniela cut my hair, where I made my first meringue and ate nonna Maria’s crêpes. . . .Much later, when I broke my arm and couldn’t stay alone in my apartment in Venice, I sought refuge once again to Marostica, where Claudio’s parents and sister welcomed me like a son.

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Polenta . part vi . Marcella’s shortcake

. Sweet polenta ideas from Biagio d’Angelo . 

As freely translated from Italian. . .

” Today I’m in the mood for confessing the unconfessable  When I was younger (and as I write these words I mean that some time has passed since then), I completely ignored the Italian kitchen. When I began living abroad, I focused on the art, literature and culinary history of the countries I resided in, and rightly so in my opinion. As a side note to this thought, let me explain that I not only detest any form of colonialism, I also dislike the term denoted by the word “expat”. 

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and this is where my confession comes in! With age comes knowledge and a fair bit of nostalgia for one’s native country. It might come to you as a surprise that one of the first cookbooks I bought was “The Essentials of Italian Cooking”, published by Marcella Hazan in 1992. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Marcella is a spiritual master of “Nigella-like” proportions from another generation. 

To give a sense of place to the magnificent M.H., allow me to sketch the broad strokes of her career. Born in 1924 in Cesnatico, Italy, Marcella’s cookbooks established traditional Italian cooking in the United States as well as Great Britain. Winner of numerous prestigious culinary awards in her lifetime, gossip goes that her husband Victor Hazan (born in Italy and originating from the Big Apple) was actually the translator of her books from Italian to English.  Who were both considered quite the couple!

Now back to the story of my first cookbook. . . The polenta recipe I have chosen as my third contribution to this wintry polenta project, is from Marcella’s  “The Essentials of Italian Cooking”This authoritative volume was printed without a single photograph and yet it is truly a vision of beauty. Despite the fact that it oozes of Italian food mastery, Marcella wrote a surprisingly short chapter on desserts. 

Tucked away in the book’s last 50 pages, I found an utterly comforting, delicious, irresistibly buttery and incredibly easy dessert. According to Marcella, this shortcake was recommended to her by the famous culinary critic and chef James Beard, who found himself fascinated by it during his stay in Venice. The kind of cake capable of creating such rapture is studded with dried figs, sultana raisins and pine nuts . . . ingredients that remind one that the glorious city of Venezia was once the gateway to the Orient.

Ingredients . for 6-8 persons . for a cake tin 22 cm in diameter 

  • 140 grams coarse cornmeal for polenta 
  • 500 ml water 
  • 120 grams fine wheat flour
  • 25 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • a pinch of sea salt 
  • 125 grams granulated sugar
  • 50 grams pine nuts 
  • 50 grams sultana raisins
  • 115 grams dried figs . sliced thin
  • 30 grams unsalted butter 
  • 5 grams unsalted butter for the cake tin 
  • 1 whole egg
  • 2 tablespoons of crushed fennel seeds 

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius, fan on. Smear the cake tin in with butter. Sprinkle it lightly in with flour, then shake out any excess left in the tin. Bring the water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Turn down the heat to medium and pour the cornmeal in a thin stream, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  Once the cornmeal is incorporated, allow it to thicken for about 15 seconds, then remove it from the heat. 

Add the sugar, pine nuts, raisins, figs, butter, egg and fennel seeds to the cornmeal. Mix thoroughly to combine, then add the flour and stir into a batter. Pour the batter into the cake tin, leveling the top with a spatula. Place the cake tin on the upper shelf of the oven and bake it 45-50 minutes, or until golden and baked in the middle. 

Remove the shortcake from the oven. While still warm, loosen its sides with a knife and turn it over on a plate. Allow the cake to cool before serving. Marcella recommends serving it with whipped cream!

This shortcakes keeps well if covered 3-4 days. 

Sincerely, Biagio .

author of gloggtheblog.com ”

Notes 

Fennel seeds are quite intense in flavor. The amount recommended in the original recipe can be decreased or simply replaced with a milder aromatic like lemon zest.

Polenta . part v . Veneto-inspired pasticcio with mushrooms

Ask anyone from the Veneto, and they will tell you that mushrooms are as essential to  winter  as golden cornmeal itself. It is fitting that a polenta-inspired recipe includes two traditional ingredients, that fit together like the perfect married couple.

Before moving on to the recipe, allow me to tell you a bit about the Italian word pasticcio. This term is most readily translated by the culinary terms pie, pastry or even casserole.   A pasticcio is used in the Veneto to describe any type of layered, oven-baked dish made from pasta or other grains. A savory pasticcio invariably includes layers of cooked vegetables, thick sauces or both. Last but not least, it almost always involves the use of dairy.

This dish takes some time to make, so find a meditative moment to slow cook. If you need some kitchen encouragement, just imagine aromatic mushrooms layered between creamy layers of polenta, laced with ground white pepper. Add melting Parmigiano cheese and butter to the story and an amber-colored ode to comfort food is born.

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Polenta . part ii . sweet almond crostata

. Polenta stories and a blog collaboration  .

. Introducing sweet polenta ideas from Biagio d’Angelo . 

In his words, translated from Italian. . .

” It all started with the mixed blessing known as Instagram. Let me explain what I mean! Instagram is a place where one can make great friends, especially because there is a vast opportunity to connect around mutual interests, like culinary subjects.

This is how I met Terri. She hasa Finnish last name, and I actually thought she spoke it. While exchanging our appreciation for a classic among cakes on Instagram, I discovered that Terri actually speaks Italian fluently. Italy is where her heart lives, she told me. In one of our first message exchanges, she explained she was reading cookbooks on the culinary tradition of the Veneto. Sometime in late autumn, I suggested we create a “club” to collaborate on our mutual interest in polenta. We gave our project the title “Polenta is the New Yellow”, which made us both laugh.

What is extraordinary is that our collaboration is completely virtual (And yes, that is definitely very typical of the global pandemic years.) I live in Brazil and Terri lives in the Netherlands. We consulted each other, via voice messages, each discussing and choosing our own recipes to write about. And this is what the results of our plan looks like:

During the next few weeks, I will prepare and publish four savory dishes with polenta as its main ingredient. I will concentrate on sweet recipes (if you know me, you know that is the obvious choice haha). We will translate each other’s recipes in Italian and English respectively, and post them on Instagram as well as on our individual blogs. Call it a project in friendship.

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Polenta . part i . minestra de farina zala

With winter in full swing, now is the perfect time to bring up the subject of polenta. It is an ingredient that sparks highly conflicting opinions. Many adore it, while others are convinced it is tasteless. That being said, I grew up in the Veneto. In this part of the world, polenta and risotto are not only food staples, they are food icons.

So to those who say polenta is inedible, I can only promise that they must try a bowl made by someone who understands how to make it. To those who love it, I feel a recognizable connection. All opinions aside, as with many foods it is a question of texture. Think of polenta as a soft, silky mash that replaces the potato for example; imagine it as the comforting neutral base to stews and thick, chunky minestrone style soups. I am convinced that like me, you will jump at the chance to have some.

Read the nostalgic recipe below, to learn how to make a creamy, pale yellow soup, known as minestra di farina zala, in Vicentino dialect. I believe it is the perfect starting point in the appreciation of simplicity.

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Zuppa !

Zuppa is the Italian name for soup made with a mixture of vegetables, cooked in broth. The word zuppa can also describe any general mix-up of things outside the soup bowl or the kitchen for that matter . . . such as a chaotic meeting or a confusing conversation for example . . .  It is derived from the word inzuppare which literally translates as to drench or to soak. 

Now back to the story of soup. The wonderful thing about zuppa is that its composition is a free-for-all for individualists. A limitless possibility of ingredient combinations are open to interpretation, depending on the cook’s mood and the availability that comes with the season. Continue reading

Polenta porridge . a basic recipe

This morning I sit at my desk to tell a short story that seems fitting for the times. My subject is yellow like saffron, but with much humbler origins. My ingredient is flour made from corn. My recipe is for something essential to every northern Italian table and it goes by the name of polenta.

Polenta is like porridge. In the Veneto it is symbolic of simple sustenance. To make it only a few ingredients are needed, namely cornmeal water and salt. To create the perfect bowl of golden, soft, pillowy polenta requires the tools called patience and time. Continue reading