La mitica torta greca: This is the story of a cake with many faces :-) Torta greca is probably one of the oldest cake recipes we know in Venice. It has survived to this day and comes in at least five variants. Originally, it’s a recipe created by the Greek community in Venice: By the year 1455, there were more than 52,000 inhabitants of Greek origin, consisting mostly of merchants and artisans. And of masterful patissiers!
Let’s explore why there are many Greek and Byzantine recipes in Venice, the unknown story of La Venezia greca!
Venezia nasce bizantina: Venice was founded as loose community of islands “under the protection” of the Eastern Roman empire, whose capital was Bisanzio (Byzantium). In this city, many people of ancient Greek origin were living. They continued speaking ancient Greek (the koiné variant).
Government officials and merchants from Byzantium were also living in the Lagoon of Venice which is why ancient Greek was the third official language, in addition to Venessian and Latin. The cogs of the Greek merchants from Byzantium were moored in the ancient port of Torcello (learn more about the port and the ancient Greek origins of Venice in the project: Voices of Venice by Università Ca’ Foscari).
From the 5th century, Greek merchants also settled on the Rivus Altus islands, in today’s sestiere di Castello, to the east and west of San Zaccaria, which was the oldest, largest and richest monastery in Venice.
When Byzantium fell in 1453, refugees (Greek merchants, artisans, diplomats, soldiers) moved to Venice that welcomed new inhabitants after a particulary deadly outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1348. And again, many Greek families settled east and west of San Zaccaria. The Greek community in Venice was growing.
For our culinary heritage this means that the people from whom Venetians had learned to cook and bake with herbs and spices eight centuries earlier, had come to live in Venice! Ancient Greek recipes, in addition to Jewish, Persian, Egyptian, Sumeric and Armenian cuisine have always been most popular.
The Greek patissiers had bakeries in Venice offering torta greca which translates as Greek cake. Torta greca is closely related to Giambonino’s almond cake, the first cake recipe in Venetian history that we know of. Giambonino lived in the 13th century and wrote the oldest cookbook passed down to us: I cibi conditi (Spice Dishes). And spices made Venetian culinary culture famous in the world, but that’s another story.
Where can you taste torta greca in Venice? I counted five varieties, and none of them is based on the Greek recipe but rather on a close “relative”, also called torta greca and created by Jewish patissiers in Mantua. The pastry stores Tonolo, Pitteri and alla Bragora bake a soft cake made from almond flour, based on the recipe from Mantua. Pitteri also offers a variant flavored with lemon essence. Dal Mas and Chiusso use finely ground almonds in the dough and make a thin frosting from bitter almond (amaretto) essence.
But what does the original, Greek recipe taste like? Our grandmother Lina discovered that the San Zaccaria library contains a number of ricettari (recipe books) written in Greek. Amongst them is a torta greca! This could be the original recipe, as it belongs to the San Zaccaria collection: the monastery of San Zaccaria is located in Greek Venice, stretching from Calle delle Rasse in the west to beyond Campo della Bragora in the east. Above, you can see the nuns of San Zaccaria, Lina and her family in April 1968. The nuns gave up the monastery San Zaccaria in June 1968, but they left their libary, a part of the building and the garden to Lina.
The cake in the San Zaccaria recipe books is rather flat and made from puff dough filled with the most delicious cream I’ve ever tasted. The almond cream is flavored with a mixture of seven spices. This was the kind of food Venice had been famous in Europe for 1,200 years, and it’s what we lost during the past 300 years ..