Discovering the ancient fruit and vegetable gardens in Venice

Spring usually starts for me with a visit to the restaurant Al Giardinetto. Mind you, it’s not that we stay away from it in winter. It’s become a tradition for my family to go there on 21 November, the day on which Venice celebrates La Madonna della Salute, and have a late lunch on one of the long tables in front of the old mantlepiece. They have high-ceiled rooms covered with frescos. Even if you come here for the first time, you might guess that this is not just any restaurant but actually a palace – Palazzo Zorzi built in the 15th century.  It’s warm and cozy to enjoy winter dinners here, but there is nothing compared to sitting outside in their gardens – if you love lush green Venetian gardens, where pergolas overgrown with the local vines of the lagoon, in particular uva fragola, provide the much needed shade in summer.

It’s in that restaurant garden in the palazzo’s courtyard that I usually taste the first primizie della primavera – the first vegetables harvested in the lagoon in spring. These are available at the markets in Venice from the second half of March. I look out for them every year on the market near our home, which is located in the midst of the open Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Most primizie come in from the lagoon islands and estuary, even though there is a new tendency in town as urban gardens are being created, recalling the ancient vocation of Venice when orchards and vegetable plots were a necessity and intrinsic part of town.

Private vegetable plots were located in courtyards, and semi-private ones on a campo onto which all houses were facing, a sort of common backyard while the main facades of the houses would be looking onto the canal.

There are many street names in Venice recalling the ancient agricultural past, and on some campi you can still see and sense it. Some campi are still rather campazzi in the sense they are not paved but have spacious green plots. In earlier times, people were walking on grass. For example, if you walk in the Dorsoduro District from Ca’ Foscari towards the Accademia Bridge, you will cross such a campo called Campiello dei Squellini where once the scudeleri, artisans making kitchen utensils like pots and pans, had been working. These days, a cafe and small stores are opening up on the small square, though to me it still conveys the impression of what a campazzo must have been, with grassy lawns and dandelions blossoming in spring and cows, pigs and hens feeding on the greens.

For a few years now, on Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio. a few vegetable plots have been arranged next to the church in a corner sheltered by white poplars. By now, a Facebook Group Il Carciofo di San Giacomo has been established, and it’s all about growing vegetables on Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio and in particular the artichokes (carciofi). Just like it used to be in former times. It was in the 1880s that many open campi were used to build homes. So Venice is not the town all stones that may be a fleeting impression of the casual visitor. Another fact is that at the Frari convent you can still see herbs and other plants and vegetables grow around the church behind a fence. As far back as the 13th century, there had been a large space dedicated to growing lattughe – the soft salads of the lagoon – were growing. There is even a legend connected that this salad once saved the life of a Venetian politician who had suffered from high fever in the 14th century. It’s beautifully described in a book by Elisabetta Tiveron called Il Quaderno degli Orti Veneziani.

So when in March the first primizie arrive at the markets in town, they make me think of the many hours I spent in exploring the Venetian campi to find traces of the ancient orchards and vegetable gardens. And there are so many left – many more than one would expect, in addition to the above initiatives and the Spiazzi Verdi urban gardens on the Giudecca. What a pleasure to have the primizie for the first time of the year in your pan, in particular  zucchini, carrots and the castraure, the upper fruits of the artichokes, which are often eaten fried in butter and seasoned with olive oil, salt and parsley.

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