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 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 sea 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!