Friday treats: Taste and bake the Venetian pomegranate cake!

Perhaps you have time to bake a Venetian cake this weekend? Adapted to the season, and alleviating any symptoms of cold weather we might be suffering right now. We have a favorite family recipe, based on a historical one, popular in the 13th century Venice. Yes, that’s the time when Marco Polo’s family was living here ..

This recipe, like all historical ones, has got to do with colors, which make for surprising effects: food that is uplifting, fights migraines, and may even prevent other disorders of autumn, like colds and a weak immune system. 

Our recipe is for a simple cake, made with ingredients you can find RIGHT NOW in the Venetian countryside, il Veneziano and the area surrounding the Lagoon, called L’Estuario (Estuary). If you take a closer look, you can see pomegranates everywhere in Venice now in fall. Many Venetian gardens have at least one pomegranate tree, and they also grow wild in the Lagoon. You can make them out when you walk along the wild gardens on the path leading from the vaporetto stop (imbarcadero) to the central area of Torcello, towards the churches and Locanda Cipriani.

The strengths of Venetian historical recipes are part of a forgotten, comprehensive concept, which includes the right amount of seasonal colors into food. For example, the red color in the recipe reflects the season, while other ingredients make up for colors this season is missing in nature. And yes, this is closely related to Ayurvedic cooking, of which the merchants of Venice were VERY WELL aware. Venetian spice masters initially took up recipes from Asia and the Levant, but soon adapted them to European taste, and what ingredients were available in Europe. And they created spice mixtures, not only for flavor, but to obtain the desired health effects.

Historical recipes always include local fruit as well. In this case, it’s the pomegranates growing everywhere in the Lagoon. Drinking one glass of pomegranate juice, freshly prepared, is the best way to prevent autumn colds, or recover from them more quickly, according to ancient manuscripts found in Venetian monasteries (San Francesco della Vigna, or San Zanipolo, a monastery that was closed, just like San Zaccaria).

In the past, Venetians just loved the pomegranate taste: they used to drink mulled wine flavored with warm pomegranate syrup, or apple and pear juice, during Christmas. Now, that’s a recipe we’ll taste later, in December :-)

In the past, nourishing cakes like this one were offered during the Festa della Salute, accompanied by dosa calda – a warming drink made from spices and figs, offered to the pilgrims on Campo della Salute, exactly in the place where in our times you can buy the candles. Dosa Calda was a staple drink, a thick warm broth, or sweet drink, followed by the castradina dish (smoked mutton with cabbage and spices, which you can still eat in Venice in the week before and after la Festa della Salute). And there used to be pomegranate cakes as well, whose recipe you can find below.

Ingredients that go into this recipe are syrups and juices made from fruit ripe in autumn, nut flours, and warming spice mixtures. Those spices make all the difference, by the way. Honey would be used invariably, as Venetians were experts in making honey, preferably from Lagoon and citrus blossoms. And there might just be a hint of home-made liquors to further enrich these uplifting, nourishing soul food recipes.

This is the tool box you need to cook Venetian soul food and bake spice cakes, like Venetian bakeries and families have done for centuries.

Each family has a favorite autumn cake, a festive treat eaten in November to celebrate harvest time and the feasts: All Saints Day, San Martin, and Festa della Salute. Our cake comes fIavored with grappa, a “naked cake” covered with nothing but a red-golden frosting made from grappa, cinnamon, apple and / or pomegranate juice.

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