Essays

The Taste of Bitter

Venice, 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 Murano’s 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.
A 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 acqua’alta and the promise of the first floods of winter...
There 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.
At 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.
I notice a sign for “Torbolino”. I’ve 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 Piedmont’s Langhe hills, we’ve enjoyed this mosto with our winemaker friend Mario around a campfire, while roasting castagne, chestnuts. In the German-speaking Südtirol, we’ve 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.
This 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.
It 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...
Our 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.
Our 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.
We 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.
We 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 Trout’s work boat chugging past our bedroom window, does not seem all that far from Venice...

Risotto con radicchio, Raboso e torbolino

1 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 don’t 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.

 

© Copyright Marc Millon 2000