Taste of Bitter
Italy 25 October 1999 An escape from
sad times to Venice for a few days, and we find that it is autumn
already, autumn touching on winter. There is no cold like the
sea-damp, bone-chilling winds that sweep across the wide lagoon
and we hurry through the narrow alleys here and there, to and
from our tiny rented studio apartment in a crumbling palazzo
near Arsenale. Or else, walking via Santa Maria Formosa and
San Giovanni e Paolo past the hospital (where invalids and the
dying are lifted out in anachronous wooden sedan chairs from
ambulance boats) to the Fondamente Nove; and from there, taking
a traghetto past the cemetery island of San Michele and the
roaring furnaces of Muranos vetrai across to little
Burano, we sense an urgency that is never here in summer, the
urgency not to dally (in this watery city made for dallying),
the need to get somewhere, to be inside. Smoke rises from the
chimneys of the toy houses of that precious island, and the
soapy scents of freshly washed linen mingle cruelly with the
delicious aromas of the home cooked midday pranzo.
full moon at night over the Grand Canal, glimpsed from the Accademia
Bridge through the swift passage of the clouds, is a glorious
sight. But it also brings acquaalta and the promise
of the first floods of winter...
are of course compensations. During our too brief stay, we live
like locals and discover a new quarter of the city, Castello.
We do not particularly feel like going out to eat much, preferring
instead the comfort, the pleasure, the luxury of daily shopping
along the Salizada dei Greci. At the Frutte e Verdure we get
to know the two elderly sisters in their aprons and housecoats,
and their agèd poodle, the cantankerous hound himself
dressed in a lugubrious Austrian-style loden coat. We purchase
from them some radicchio, the characteristic, bitter red lettuce
of the Veneto, neither the round, more common version from Chioggìa,
nor the long, romaine-like lettuce from Treviso, but instead
a smaller, tougher, more bitter and stalky example from Castelfranco
Veneto. Pìu buono, questo. Per fare un ottimo
risottino, one of the sisters advises us, putting
her forefinger to her cheek and rotating it as they do here
to indicate something inexpressibly delicious.
the Alimentari we purchase beautifully sliced, almost transparent
sheets of prosciutto di San Daniele, some thick, fatty
salame nostrano, a generous hunk of parmigiano reggiano,
and a slab of our favourite local cheese, asiago stagionato.
We find a local enoteca or wine cantina on a side canal
where there are cane covered damigiane from which regulars purchase
vino sfuso simple local wines of the Veneto, such
as Tocai, Cabernet and Merlot drawn off by a siphon into
five litre bottles. I try a glass of the dense, purple, slightly
frizzante Merlot. It is good, it is honest. But I prefer instead
to purchase a couple of bottles of rasping Raboso del Pedunculo
Rosso from the Lison-Pramaggiore zone.
notice a sign for Torbolino. Ive not come
across this before. It is the local term for mosto or
newly pressed grape juice that is in the process of still fermenting,
and thus is no longer grape juice but not yet wine: something
frothing and vivacious and deliciously in-between. In Piedmonts
Langhe hills, weve enjoyed this mosto with our
winemaker friend Mario around a campfire, while roasting castagne,
chestnuts. In the German-speaking Südtirol, weve
sampled törgellen, a simple repast of speck,
cheese, good bread and the new, still-fermenting mosto.
So here, I purchase a litre of the white torbolino, made
from Prosecco grapes, and a litre of the red, made from Cabernet.
The red is better, and our daughter Bella quickly downs a couple
of tumblers on our return to our palazzo.
torbolino, it has to be said, is good; it is seasonal;
it tastes of our mood, the old year slowly transubstantiating
into something new. But real wine is better, and the Raboso,
drunk with grissini wrapped with the sweet prosciutto
di San Daniele, is tooth-stainingly and alcoholically exquisite.
We all too quickly down the bottle, open a second.
occurs to us: Why not use that slightly sweet, dense, deeply
coloured torbolino made from Cabernet grapes that
wine which is not yet wine to make a risotto with the
bitter, tenacious radicchio di Castelfranco Veneto? A
marriage of sweet and bitter, transformed through our elbow
efforts (and a liberal dose of parmigiano reggiano, a
hefty nugget of good sweet butter) into a sublimely simple and
typical Venetian repast...
stay in Venice is too short, sweet and bitter at the same time.
Yet the damp and the rain interspersed with sunshine and the
promise of good times dopo la tempesta has served to
lift our spirits.
departure, however, is almost farcical. The rains, like gatti
e cani these days, combined with the mysterious gravitational
powers of the full moon, have indeed conspired to bring the
first acqua'alta of the season. Imagine the scene: we're
staying on the Riva degli Schiavoni near Arsenale and have to
get down to San Marco to catch the water bus to the aeroporto.
The Riva is crowded on a Sunday morning. As we approach the
Ponte degli Sospiri, we realise that people have concentrated
onto the wooden walkways that are set up for times of flooding.
For us this is a disaster as with our luggage and the crowds
it is virtually impossible to walk on these boards. Little Bella
has new boots and doesn't want to get them wet. What to do?
If we miss the water bus, then we'll miss our flight. We try
and strike out and find a long cut around the back of San Marco,
but run into a logjam here too: flooding along a small side
street, the women with their Prada handbags and fur collars
aghast, a gaggle of Japanese tourists giggling and taking pictures.
somehow reach San Marco, the wonderful piazza into which just
two years ago Nello and I cycled in triumph. The square now
is completely flooded, and there are endless lines of people
Italians, Venetians, tourists shuffling steadily
but agonisingly slowly along the upstanding wooden walkways
that cross the piazza. Nello would have howled at our predicament.
For there is really no other way: I take off my shoes and socks
and roll up my trousers; Kim, unceremoniously but with considerable
style, even elegance, slips out of her tights and hoiks her
long skirt into her knickers. With that, I pick up and hump
the suitcases, while Kim lifts up and carries our little princess
in new boots. And we hoof it: right across the now fully flooded
square, at times nearly calf high in water, us slipping on the
pigeon muck and the marble paving, the well-dressed Italians
out for a Sunday stroll aghast at we barbarians (surprisingly
or perhaps not surprisingly no one else is doing
this). Midway across we pause for a moment (but dare not put
down our loads), mid-ocean and all alone in the midst of that
glorious and liberating space.
make it across, shivery and soaked both from water and sweat,
yet also strangely happy and exhilarated. Deliciously in-between.
And so we eventually catch the water bus to traverse the lagoon,
to Marco Polo airport, on to London Stanstead, and finally back
to our little home on the River Exe. Which, actually you know,
on this grey, foggy morning, the early and reassuring sound
and judder of Mark Trouts work boat chugging past our
bedroom window, does not seem all that far from Venice...
con radicchio, Raboso e torbolino
small red onion, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
Olive oil and butter
2 cups vialone nano rice
1 head of radicchio lettuce, coarsely chopped (leave some
full leaves aside to garnish)
1 cup of Raboso or Cabernet del Veneto red wine
1 cup of Cabernet torbolino (still fermenting grape juice)
Good homemade chicken broth
Grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
Salt and black pepper
Heat a saucepan with the chicken broth and
leave on the simmer. In another saucepan, add some olive oil
and butter and gently fry the red onion and garlic until translucent.
Add the vialone nano rice and cook gently, testing from time
to time with the fingers until the rice grains are hot to
the touch (it is important during this tostatura to ensure
that the rice grains are warmed all the way through, as this
makes for a better absorption of the cooking liquid). Add
the coarsely chopped radicchio, mix well, then add a cup of
the Raboso or Cabernet wine. Allow to bubble up and reduce
gently. Then gradually add the torbolino (if you dont
have this then use more wine and broth: it will still be delicious),
and allow to reduce. Continue this process with the chicken
broth, stirring well, and only adding a ladle or two more
once all the other liquid has been absorbed. The whole process
should take about 30 minutes. Towards the end, toss in a generous
nugget of butter, and a couple of tablespoons of freshly grated
parmigiano reggiano cheese. The rice must remain al dente,
firm to the bite, but cooked through and so not chalky in
the middle. Test frequently to achieve this precise and precious
moment. Season with salt and plenty of freshly ground black
pepper. Serve at once, a large serving spoon dolloped onto
a red radicchio leaf for each person.
Wine suggestion: Raboso del Pedunculo Rosso, or Cabernet
or Merlot del Veneto.