While there are quite a few culinary guide books pointing out historical Venetian food, what about historical beverages? While we know Venetian culinary culture quite well by now (we are making progress in Venice, yet, there are still so many books waiting on the shelves in libraries), can you imagine what the Venetians of the past, and the doges, of course, used to drink in summer?
The beverages we are mentioning in this blog post are less than the literal tip of iceberg of lost Venetian recipes. Still much work ahead :-)
Beverages are our Roman heritage in the kitchen!
One can read little about the Roman heritage of Venice, and in my posts on ancient recipes, I usually point you into the direction of the Levant. Yet, Venetians didn’t have to look so far beyond the Lagoon for there was a well-developed beverage culture at their doorstep. Some Lagoon islands, like Sant’Erasmo, were used by the Romans from Altino to cultivate vines and vegetables. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Romans didn’t disappear from the Lagoon but contributed their recipes to the fledgling fusion kitchen of the three peoples living in the Lagoon (==> read their story here). One could say that the Romans were responsible for coining ancient wine culture in Venice, long before the merchants set off towards the Levant.
Local noble and popular wines, and grappa in the Lagoon!
Vines, such as vigna Dorona, are of Roman origin, cultivated in the Lagoon since times immemorial. Amber-colored, heavy with just a light touch, vino d’oro became the preferred wine of the Doges, who proudly offered it to foreign guests during banquets.
Did you know that you can taste the Golden Doge’s Wine at Venissa, a restaurant turned resort on Mazzorbo, the island situated next to Burano? You can see images of Mazzorbo in this blog post.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, many recipes went lost, and this also happened with know-how on growing vines in the Lagoon, mostly cultivated on Le Vignole during the Middle Ages. These wines remained vini del popolo because they tasted slightly salty. While the salty soil confers unique flavors to vegetables, this isn’t so good for making wine. To grow wine in the Lagoon, you need islands permanently above water and soil not even laced with sea water. As the salinity level in the northern Lagoon is considerably lower than in the southern area, “signature” wines grow there, near the mouths of rivers, benefiting from incoming freshwater.
With Lagoon wine mostly tasting rather salty, Venetians added flavors to improve it, and vin a la naransa became a favorite aperitif in the past. Rather sweet for today’s taste, perhaps, for it consisted of dry white wine, lots of cane sugar and orange peel.
The farmers in the Lagoon, in particular on Sant’Erasmo and Le Vignole, also made grappa. Soon, they used some of the spices the merchants of Venice brought back from their voyages and flavored their grappa with cinnamon or vanilla.
There’s one special vine you will surely have heard of. It grows in so many secret courtyards in Venice. Uva fragola, the “strawberry grape”, also grows on the marshlands lining the Lagoon. Its taste is distinctively strawberry, and some say that’s the case because strawberry plants grow around them. Yet, the wine also tastes like strawberry juice when no strawberries grow next to the vines. This vine is neither from the Veneto nor from Greece but from North America, brought to Venice in the 18th century. To this day, it has become the distinctive flavor with which Venetians love to accompany summer lunch.
Did you know that you can eat lunch or dinner under a pergola covered with uva fragola grapes at Al Giardinetto da Severino (Calle Zorzi, Castello)? This is one of my favorite restaurants in Venice.
Greek wine and vino spezià
As you can read in this post, there were merchants from Byzantium permanently settling on Torcello. They brought with them vitigni (vines) from the Greek islands. It seems they contributed their know-how of making vino spezia’ and vino krasì to Lagoon beverage culture. Of course, Byzantium had long been a center of the spice trade, so these merchant families did have spice wine recipes to share, both refreshing ones in the summer and restoring beverages during the colder season, the “predecessor recipe” of vin brûlé.
Rose flavored drinks, coconuts and acqua de fiori de naransa from the Levant
My favorite chapter :-) Venetian merchants, from the 8th century AD, brought home to the Lagoon the art of preparing flavored almond drinks, rose liquors, and colorful liquors such as alchermes. And there was orange blossom lemonade, which in some family journals in Venice features as gazosa fata in casa, using orange blossom water which in Venetian is acqua de fiori de naransa. And who knows today that Venetians in the 14th century loved coconut drinks? This sounds like an improbable story, yet, the Venetian merchants brought home fruit, plants and seeds from the Indian Ocean, Middle East or Africa, so many of these species found a new home in the luxurious gardens in Venice.
With regard to alchermes, you can choose between two versions of this brilliant-red liquor. I prefer the one containing alcohol, cane sugar, spices and rose syrup. We use it to flavor cakes and even coffee! Alchermes also goes into the fave dei morti biscuits we eat in Venice on All Saints Day.
And where can you taste historical drinks in Venice? There are luxury restaurants that serve it, and you could also find them in popular trattorie. Historical drinks are on the menu of the Grandi Caffé lining Piazza San Marco. Sometimes, I love searching for traces of our culinary culture – and ancient beverages – at summer feasts in Venice. Right now, there are so many of them, and there’s also the Redentore Feast celebrated on the third weekend in July.
In particular, the Venetian sestiere Castello seems to be a haven for ancient recipes, but then, you can find them all over Venice, of course. For example, at last week’s solstice feasts, history accompanies us in a playful manner, from recitations on balconies to wine tastings. Strangely flavored spice dishes appearing on the tables? Well, we are getting closer, and I love talking with the people in my neighborhood about their recipes. It’s the summer feasts at which I found important hints leading me to historical recipes, often living on as “family recipes”.