The Veneto Diaries . A Prologue

. Traveling to Venezia .

I took the early morning train from Vicenza to Venezia almost every Saturday as a teenager. On my way to my favorite destination,  I stared out the window, hoping to capture the Renaissance villas hidden by the misty hills of Vicenza with my 35mm camera. Traveling towards Venezia Santa Lucia I jotted down my thoughts in green ink on the pages of handmade paper notebooks and dreamt of becoming a writer.  

The trip seemed to last just minutes and I was inevitably caught by surprise when the train jolted to a halt at the bustling station of my journey’s end. Vicenza was my home town and Venice was my getaway. To this day, the Veneto shapes the background to my love of Italy, which in turn gives form to my life story. 

As a foreigner growing up in Vicenza, I loved to find myself in the midst of diligent tourists gathered together from all parts of the world, cluttering the streets and waterways of Venice. The steps of the stazione  were the perfect location for brief multi-lingual exchanges with questioning travelers. My shy suggestions given to inquisitive tourists on how to escape the mainstream, were a fleeting and seemingly predestined introduction to my arrival at a place that simply represented a second home to me.

After taking my time to observe the morning situation on the water’s edge, just long enough to soak up the salty Venetian air, I maneuvered my way quickly through the crowds filling up the main streets in the direction of the Piazza San Marco. I crossed over the Canal Grande at the famous Ponte Rialto, ignoring the stalls filled with souvenirs along the way. Beyond the Rialto’s marble steps was the threshold to my favorite neighborhood in Venice, the Sestiere San Polo.

Passing through the Campo S. Giacomo di Rialto, my pace would slow as I reached  the Erbaria fruit and vegetable market, where I listened to conversations among Venetians on how to cook local artichokes or radicchio. My 35mm camera was put to good use, capturing stacked crates of every seasonal vegetable imaginable, from the beautiful cranberry colored borlotti of the late summer, to white asparagus and peas in the spring.  At the Campo della Pescaria, sturdy tables were filled with an abundance of fresh fish, protected by the loggia built to protect this magnificent open air market.

I believe that not only my love of cooking but of vegetable markets was born during my weekend trips back and forth from Vicenza to Venezia. The Veneto is as I often say, where my heart lives; it is truly the place I feel most happy and at home. When I can, I travel to the Veneto from the Netherlands, where I have lived for many years. My very first destination when traveling to Italy, is Vicenza of course.

While my life story is intertwined with countless wanderings through the streets of Venice, I feel the greatest affinity with the entroterra of the Veneto. The beautiful word entroterra translates from Italian as ‘inland’; it can however also mean ‘interior’ or ‘outback’. With a short stretch of the imagination, this word implies the vast countryside to the west of Venice. Historically intertwined with La Serenissima, the inland regions of the Veneto are beauties in themselves.

Time flew by as if in a dream, as I wandered in awe from market stall to market stall. Careless of getting lost in the winding streets built on an ancient world, unplanned discovery was made of colorful fruttivendoli storefronts (the Italian name for the green grocers), of pasticcerie (pastry shops) and of glorious panifici (bakeries). Lost in the beauty of the moment, the chime of the midday church bells served as a reminder that the time for a Venetian pranzo had arrived. 

I casually navigated my way back to Santa Lucia station, prolonging my travels just a few more delicious hours before making my way back to Vicenza.  Traveling in the general direction of home,  I was happily distracted by the perfume of cooking, coming from home kitchens and of course, from the “bacari” dotting the San Polo “sestiere”. It was here I discovered cicchetti, Venetian dialect for “small bites”.

At the time I made no distinction between Venezia and Vicenza and its mutually shared ritual of sharing food with a Prosecco or a Spritz in the late afternoon. Immersed in the vita quotidiana (daily life) of the Veneto, it wasn’t in a name but in a common custom that I associated the activity of gathering together informally in and around the main squares of the region, in the shadow of church towers or the statue of the lion of San Marco, the symbol of the Venetian republic. 

. History and the stories it tells .

Rivers of ink have flowed in the writing of books about Venice, the most famous city of the Veneto. It goes without saying that library shelves are filled with the fascinating history of this magical city.  Art and architecture, language and culture, politics and intrigue and the flux of people’s and culture most definitely converge on this city floating on water. I know I will never tire of reading and learning about this part of the world.

Since human history is told with food stories, so too is the narrative of Venice. One of the things that fascinates me the most, is the origin of ingredients and the convergence of worlds and flavors that can be traced in the food traditions of the Veneto. While my desk has been stacked in the last few years not only with cookbooks, but with volumes of history, art and even novels about this part of the world, I am not quite ready to write a scholar’s history of food. That being said, the winding road of learning and experience will always lead back to the Veneto. In this introduction to a new blog category entitled “The Veneto Diaries” I sketch a personal story, the only one I can tell with certainty. 

. About Vicenza .

The Basilica Palladiana of Vicenza, located on the Piazza dei Signori is surrounded with osterie, cantine (both words for tavern or pub) and even locali, which I loosely translate as ‘place’. In the shadow of its symmetric archways; spilling out from its ground floor; and spread out along its copper rooftop, the Basilica is alive with activity at all hours of the day. Standing in awe of the view from this Piazza, I can almost hear the echo of life lived here through the centuries.

Anytime after ten or so, empty cups of espresso and cappuccino make way for another kind of refreshment. Brightly colored Spritz cocktails, made with mineral water or a splash of Prosecco catch the eye of the passersby, as friends and family gather at the bar counters and small tables around the main square (not to mention throughout the city). In the late afternoon, between four and seven or so, the bustle of work is traded in for conversation. The famous bacari of Venice are called osterie here. Huddled for cover under the roof of the Basilica in winter, and spilling over onto the Piazza when the season permits, every gathering is an opportunity to share food. And as a good friend of mine says, people from the Veneto like to drink wine, so why not pair it with food?

. What’s in a name .

In Vicenza and surrounding area Venetian cicchetti generally go by a different name. While some places in Vicenza will call their food creations cicchetti, it is generally agreed that this word originates from Venice. The same custom however, flourishes not only in Venice, but in the cities of Padova, Vicenza and Treviso. 

In the Veneto dialect, the Italian verb pungere (which translates as ‘to sting’ or ‘to bite’) is called spunciar.  The reference to a bite or a sting is a metaphor for something small to eat, the traditional companion to a glass of wine. What goes by the name of cichetto in Venice, is known as a spuncio, spuncetto, spuncione or spunciotto in the surrounding areas of Vicenza and Padova. It is also interesting to note that a spuncio implies a type of food that can be enjoyed without a plate or a fork. 

Whether in the form of milk bread tartines, grilled polenta crostini, or in the shape of thinly sliced local salame sopressa or wedges of Asiago cheese, spuncioti are to be found in a wide variety of flavors. People from Vicenza and surrounding area consider themselves down-to-earth and practical, so their spunci are rustic, homestyle foods connected to the traditions of their countryside.

The influence of Venice and the Adriatic Sea are reflected in the Vicentino love for fish. Almost every osteria, or even the more sophisticated style enoteca wine bars in and around Vicenza, will make an assortment of fish-focused spuncioti. The iconic ingredient baccala is essential, and just one of the things Vicenza happens to be famous for. 

Just as in Venice, the ritual of wandering from place to place to talk and taste while enjoying drinks is a popular pastime. In Vicenza and the surrounding area, it goes by the expression andare per osterie, which translates roughly as ‘going to taverns’.

. Making Friends and a Blog Collaboration .

Faraway friends are made through food, and this is how I became friends with Tina Prestia; an expert in the making of fresh pasta, food writer and professional chef, Tina is a wealth of knowledge and passion. Through a mutual admiration of all things in the Italian kitchen, Tina and I started out as pen pals on Instagram a few years ago. We haven’t met each other in real life yet, (after all who has seen anyone in 2020 right?) but I am sure we will someday. 

Tina has an elaborate cookbook library, and I ask her advice frequently on recipe origins. Her connection with Venice is a uniquely personal one, and she has hundreds of stories and photos to narrate it. This is how our plan to collaborate was born. We chose the subject of Venice, and more generally of the tradition as our starting point because this is where our life paths and passions cross. We have spent weeks comparing notes, books and opinions, which I have to say is my favorite thing to do, except for traveling to Italy of course.

In a soon to be published sequel to today’s introductory blogs, we both will write a recipe (or two) that complement the wealth of a vast food experience. Stay tuned as I share my favorite fish recipe, and Tina sketches how to create your own cicchetti party at home. For now, I invite you to read Tina’s blog and her love letter to Venezia. Follow her Instagram page for passionate musings on life in Italy, beyond delicious home cooked food and her travel escapades.

The colors of winter

Every year, just around mid-November I promise myself not to hibernate through the ever-darkening days of winter. December passes by in an intimate family circle of festivities and holiday decorations get packed away for another year in a slow-motion ritual.

Despite all efforts to the contrary, the quiet comforts of home define the month of January. Regrettably (or so it may seem), the cold season settles in for a begrudgingly accepted stay.

Cooking soups and making stews with sturdy greens and roots are the practical results of the dark days of this season. Reading books pass the time during long evenings indoors, but gathering my thoughts truly tell my story of winter.

With pen and paper in hand, at this time of year I slow down to write. Although most of my published writing is in fact a series of seasonal recipes,  my personal journals outline my reasons for being. Writing in quiet solitude makes sense to the puzzle of daily life in other words.

In the coming year I will be creating anew, first and foremost in my blog.  During the last months, I have actually been working on the introduction of three new forms of expression to expand upon my recipe writing.  Just like the notebooks stacked on my desk, each addition will be shaped into a chapter to form a broader creative diary.

Firstly, I will make place for visual inspiration and photos of my surroundings, not directly related to cooking a specific dish. This chapter will be a photo journal as it were.

Secondly, I will add a means for the unknowing reader to explore and utilize the recipes I publish, without having to read a diary of food memories first! This chapter will be much like a library.

Lastly, I will design a space for stories, simply because there are so many interesting people and places in the world. Sometimes a narrative will be historical or even factual in nature. Primarily, this chapter will document the noteworthy I happen to be lucky to discover. Imagine it as a thesaurus of significant things if you will.

My ambition is expansive. It’s going to take some time. In the meanwhile I will keep writing here, in the journal I started so many years ago.

On a weekly basis my journey about the essential and the ordinary in life and cooking can be tracked on my Instagram account.

A few notes of explanation

The original plan for my recipe writings was to post seasonal recipes, adding to each category on a weekly basis in alphabetical order, from top to bottom and back. My thoughts on filling the categories equally in intervals has evolved for a number of reasons.

First of all, the category of ‘My Mom’s Favorites’ is very important to me, and I want her entries to be completely accurate. This inspires lots of thinking and jotting down of notes. I am currently researching her hand-written recipe cards, arranging them chronologically. I have now decided to present my Mom’s favorites by putting them together in combinations of dishes which she liked to serve at dinners shared with family and friends. I hope not only to reflect her cooking style and generous personality, but also to weave the story of many memories, starting with our house in Caldogno. This category will be posted periodically as it is both beautiful and also very difficult for me to write about because I miss her so.

Continue reading

The first post

I’ve written notebooks full of ideas and recipes all mixed together with thoughts concerning food and color combinations, plate arrangements, table settings, styling and food presentation. My notebooks form a history in themselves, tracing my work as a cook.

After procrastinating for a number of months, the perfect hazy Sunday morning has arrived to sit down at the kitchen table and write the introduction to my own kitchen diaries.

Cooking brings the senses alive. Substance, taste and smell come to the foreground. A chemistry of ingredients mingle as the kitchen becomes perfumed. All other activities fall into a backdrop as the elements of a meal come together.

This is my cooking journal. Ultimately it will form a book of notes on simple dishes and meals made from a cupboard of favorite ingredients.  My collection of recipes are primarily from the authentic Italian kitchen. Although not strictly vegetarian, I will highlight vegetables and herbs, and other beautiful elements to be found on the kitchen tables of my friends in Italy.

I prefer naturally grown produce as well as fresh and seasonal ingredients obtained from people who care about their products. My passion is for healthy food, free of artificial colors and preservatives. My quest is to document wonderful dishes that are as easy as pleasurable to make.

As my journal develops I will construct a library of special sources. My favorite place to buy food is at farmer’s markets, thus I will write about the special markets I know and my relationship to them.  In addition I will make a scrapbook of personal photographs.

Cooking inspires.  The content of this journal of recipe writings are inspired by mothers and daughters. First and foremost, I dedicate my work to my mother who taught me the love of cooking.

Saluti – Terri Salminen