In this post we let you into a secret. Each Venetian neighborhood has its own, and so has ours.
This is the story of a plant, flourishing here before I was born, landmark of this little square for almost ninety years. A few people living here still recall it, and how one day in the late 1970s, it was simply cut. What’s left are a few stories and the oil painting in Nonna Lina’s living room.
This painting is testimony to a past when the little square wasn’t just a thoroughway everyone one must pass on their way from San Zaccaria to Campo Santa Maria Formosa. It shows a beautiful rambling plant surviving on uncertain soil for it didn’t have much space to grow. In Venice, growing plants can be a bit of a challenge. There simply isn’t enough soil and even if you have a garden, you cannot always tell what’s exactly below that relatively thin strati di terriccio – layers of soil. Archeologists love it but gardeners don’t.
To me, this special painting of the wisteria is a precious glimpse of a past none of us has witnessed. When Venice, especially in spring, must have looked incredibly lush and (edible) blossoms abounded on each and every square. Venetians of the past were keen gardeners and during the times of the Republic, flowers were grown by the poorer people on the squares and in courtyards, harvested and sold to one of the forty state-owned saponifici (soap factories) in town.
We can only try to imagine what Venice must have looked like during April say, 300 years ago. April was the first month of the blossom harvesting season, and it still is. Roses, elder flowers and acacia trees are now blossoming in Venice, and so is wisteria ! These spring blossoms were used to flavor food, bake cakes, create perfumes, beauty products and natural remedies (in particular, syrups and pomate – ointments), or they were sold to the soap factories.
In this case, it wasn’t the Venetian spezieri (spice masters, focusing on imported herbs, blossoms and spices), but the monasteries in town that became experts in using local blossoms for all purposes, led by the monasteries of San Zanipolo, Frari and San Francesco della Vigna.
Leafing through recipe journals written in the 19th century, you will find many requiring freshly harvested or dried blossoms as ingredients. In our case, Grandmother’s recipe journal reads like this.
Candied mimosa blossoms. Cherry blossom syrup. Lilac syrup. Baked acacia. Elder flower pancakes. Lemon blossom honey flavored with lemon blossoms. Lemon blossom tea. Parma violet pancakes. Dandelion blossom salad. Geranium-blossom flavored fish. Geranium syrup. Geranium-neroli ointment. Primrose blossom butter. Begonia-flavored brioche. Rosemary blossom-flavored brandy butter. Apricot jam flavored with white rose petals. Towards the end of spring, lavender blossoms take over, they are used to make syrup and flavor sponge cakes and biscuits. And there are wisteria blossom frittelles ..
.. which brings me back to the painting, drawing me magically when I was a child. It shows the little campo bathing in peaceful morning light. The air is calm with everything you need to feel contented.
This delightful and quiet Campo San Provolo is located five minutes from Piazza San Marco. It must have been very idyllic in the 1970s, neither too large nor too small. This is historical ground, once a major meeting point between Venetian and Greek merchants (the Greek quarter is, after all, less than three minutes away).
The pozzo (well) is still there and so is Casa Fontana, Trattoria San Provolo and Pizzeria da Roberto which is changing owners, though. On the other side, Trattoria da Nino is half hidden under Sotoportego del Vin leading towards Campiello del Vin and finally towards Riva degli Schiavoni. To the right (you can’t see it in the painting), a sotoportego leads into Campo San Zaccaria. The nuns of San Zaccaria built it to protect their peace and quiet from the lively merchant scenes of the past.
The stories each of these buildings has witnessed could fill a book, for here we are on the premises of the former monastery of San Zaccaria, and it’s here (and at the Rialto) that the islands, which were to become Venice, were urbanized first.
You wouldn’t believe how hot the little campo gets in summer. Eating lunch outside is almost out of the question and the window shutters must be closed by 9 am. The plants on the balconies are exchanged for cacti (!!), geranium, begonia etc. are arranged in their pots inside or they wouldn’t survive the parching heat. Yet, Nonna Lina tells me, the wisteria withstood it all, blossoming not only in April but a second time in late June and a third time in mid-September. Protected by its rich foliage, blackbirds were nesting, surviving the summer heat.
This special wisteria was covering the buildings lining the campo on one side and the sotoportego (covered archway) separating campo San Provolo from Fondamenta dell’Osmarin. An artist friend of our grandparents’ was so enamored with the little square and its wisteria, he couldn’t resist immortalizing the scene and gave the painting to them as a gift.
So yes, the wisteria is still being missed and a “local legend” formed, alleging that a nun had come from the monastery of San Francesco della Vigna, keeping a few of its roots. So with a bit of luck, this lush plant is still alive somewhere in the rambling gardens of this monastery.
Nonna Lina told me it had been cut because insects used twigs and branches as “bridge” to reach on the window sill and the rooms. She didn’t tell me who cut the plant in the late 1970s, but one day she came home and the wisteria was simply gone. Even Lina, practical and down-to-earth, admits that since that day, she’s been missing the sweet scent spreading from its blossoms all over the square and into her home, especially in April when the wisteria consisted of almost nothing else but purple blossoms.
Lina also harvested the blossoms of this wisteria and used them in the kitchen.
She used to make syrup and glicine fritto – fried wisteria blossoms covered in a light batter and flavored with lemon blossom honey and vanilla sugar. There are many varieties of wisteria, those growing in Venice are considered edible, I was told. In Venice, there’s mostly wisteria cinensis, and the owner of a perfumery store at the Rialto told me she still harvests wisteria in her garden on the Lido and eats fried blossoms in April.
Of course, it’s not easy to preserve the scent of blossoms once they are heated but then, we do have a few methods to deal with that. The easiest way is to use blossoms in acque profumate – flower waters. You can read more in our upcoming book Roses and Spices – In the Kitchen with Nonna.6