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A Venetian Spice Vocabulary

04.16.16

Two weeks ago we could read in the Venetian newspapers about Drogheria Mascari, the spice store located next to the Rialto Market. Its windows attract many passers-by with spices arranged in a myriad of brilliant colors. This spice store takes us back to the flourishing times of the Venetian spezièri, a term we’ll explain in a minute.

The owner, Luciano Mascari, died unexpectedly aged 82 in the first week of April. With a family passionate about spices and gourmet food they will continue their business. Venetians owe this family a lot as it’s the last real spice store in town and so much more.

Mr. Mascari was called commerciante simbolo – a symbolic tradesman – in the local paper La Nuova Venezia. I last saw him in February when I bought another scorta di spezie and a spice jar made by ceramic makers in Bassano del Grappa just like they looked hundreds of years ago.

I remember when just before Christmas Mr. Mascari sold me a bagful of his farina di castagne, chestnut flour made from freshly harvested chestnuts in the Veneto. He would always give me wonderful culinary tips which I will miss very much in the future !!!!

Last time, we discussed how to flavor cakes with chestnut flour and chestnut cream. Which spices can be combined with the chestnut flavor  (vanilla and cinnamon were his choice). You can see the cake we made based on his advice in the pictures above.

dscn0171 Why is Drogheria Mascari so dear and important to Venetians?

They’re the last of their kind in Venice, narrowly speaking. This store is still located in the ancient extended Rialto market area. 300 years ago, Drogheria Mascari would have been called una spezeria, its owner would have been called lo spezièr, spezièr da confeti, to be more precise, for they also sell caramelle, sugar-flavored little sweets. Their profession officially existed in Venice since 1172 and from the beginning, they had a church of their own on the Rialto island, San Mattia. Later, the seat of their professional association was moved to Sant’Aponal and this became their church too. San Mattia was converted into a private home in the year 1818, with the name Calle San Matia still recalling the church.

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In 1574, the spezièri started to focus on two different lines of products:

  1. Spezieri da confeti as part of the droghieri focussed on creating tasty spice mixtures, also selling in their stores in Venice candied fruit, blossomy cakes and pastry, almond milk, flower syrups and many other foods made from and with spices.
  2. Spezieri da medicine focussed on creating remedies from herbs, blossoms and spices, becoming apothecaries. Both bought their raw materials = spices from the spezieri da grosso, wholesale spice merchants. These were responsible for shipping the goods and are also called the “Merchants of Venice”.

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In the 15th century, four thousand Venetian families resided as spezieri da grosso in the Levantine countries. They permanently lived in trading posts in Constantinople, Baghdad, Aleppo, Alexandria, Beirut, Tripoli, Cairo, Trebisonda, Damascus, and in the towns along the three spice routes.

On average, the spezieri da grosso shipped 5,000 tons of spices per year to Venice using the regular state shipping service called Le Mude. Business was flourishing for Venice and brought in the money to embellish town.

dscn0172 Spice Merchants = spezieri da grosso brought the raw materials to Venice, to be mixed, refined and resold as Venetian spice mixtures along with recipes in Europe and the world. So now you can imagine that the ancient calli on the Rialto Island keep many spice secrets. I love to imagine the fragrance and exotic scents hovering over Venice. You can sense a bit in the video below in which Gino Mascari reveals a few secrets of the trade.

Author: Iris

Iris Loredana: Culinary historian, food and lifestyle blogger. Author of the Blogs "La Venessiana" (Venice) and "From My Italian Home" (coming soon). My family is from Venice and Amalfi and I'm currently based in Venice and Vienna. I love traveling, cooking and gardening - all the things I'm writing about in my blogs !!

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