Venetian Winter Pancakes and the Concept of Ancestral Food

Introducing the notion of ancestral Lagoon food, we need to return for a moment to the way how Venice is defined. Is this just a city forlorn in a Lagoon? Or, is Venice part of a larger ecosystem, comprising Lagoon, sand dunes, marshy islands and swampy flatlands?

Because, that’s what Venice is in the first place: The Lagoon was shaped by man, yes, but never did our ancestors have mind of creating islands “orbiting around” a “main island” called Venice. When man had learned how to manage such a liquid environment, they didn’t start from scratch, but from the Torcello archipelago, comprising the island group and the adjacent cities on the mainland, like Altino and Heraclea, so much older than Venice! And Venice herself is no main island as you know, but rather an archipelago called Rivus Altus in the beginning, and consisting of several island groups: Rialto, Olivolo, Le Gemine, and Ombriola.

This means that since the 11th century, l’ecosistema lagunare, called Le Venetiae, a plural noun, consisted of several hubs, and each was assigned precise roles to fulfill: Pellestrina, Chioggia, and Fusina in the south. Poveglia in the south-west. The Rivus Altus archipelago known as “Venice”. The Burano -Torcello archipelago in the north. The Ammiana – Sant’Ariano island group in the North-East. And then, there are many Lagoon fringe villages, never mentioned, and peninsulas: Iesolo, Eraclea, Altino, and the Brenta Riviera to the west. There are the mouths of the rivers discharging their waters into the Lagoon, and the numerous little villages lining those rivers, amongst pine trees, wheat fields, vegetable plots, and mulberry trees. All this is “Venice”, and it shows in the food people were eating in the Lagoon sospesa fra terra e mare. This is what we call ancestral food, based on plants. And yes, we can apply this term also to an ancient Lagoonscape like ours.

Knowing all this takes us one step further, and we can explain the history of Lagoon food in the first place, how it all started out, basic ingredients, later enriched with fabulous spices. So, Venice is not so much an environment whose culinary traditions are looking towards the sea, but rather, the second important focus was put on plant-based foods. Below you can read how this came all about.

Until 1476, the estuary consisted mostly of unhealthy swamps, but at a time when wheat prices were rising sharply in Europe, urbanizing these swamps to create farmland sounded reasonable to the Venetian Government: Thus, they suspended the ban prohibiting Venetians to own more than ten campi (fields) on the terra firma (mainland). The Government always tried to make sure that Venetians remained merchants and didn’t turn into landlords, which could have jeopardized the trade-based economy (spices and luxury goods) of the Republic.

Thus, to procure wheat for the city in a cheaper way and to become self-sufficient, from 1476, Venetian families were allowed to urbanize these swampy flatlands, build villas (le ville venete) and grow wheat, merging culinary traditions of the campagna and the Lagoon. This plant-based, ancestral food has always been the heart of Venetian culinary culture, enriched with exclusive spice mixtures for more than thousand years.

There’s hope for both culinary concepts, the ancestral food culture of the Lagoon and Estuary, and the sophisticated spice health and wellness cuisine of Venice: As the ancestral food culture represents the cucina povera, it survived in families that have lived here for centuries, in the recipe journals of grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Yes, we are talking about recipes that are 150 years and much older!! These recipes are closer to the times when the Republic of Venice, which ceased to exist in 1797, still existed.

In this blog post, we are sharing one of these recipes from my family: I was told it was eaten in January, after the Venetian Christmas (Festa della Befana) on 6 January, during those dark and foggy months of cold January. A recipe that protects and furnishes all the ingredients we need to keep warm and healthy during this time of fog and darkness, for the days in Venice are so short now and look just like in the pictures I’m sharing in this blog post.

Plant syrups, integrated with spices (the last traces of the grand Venetian medical spice cuisine) were the go-to recipes when people were suffering from the flu one hundred years ago. And we have found a recipe in grandmother’s collection that uses a plant syrup: Sciroppo al pino mugo, besides relieving any sort of cough you may have due to the humidity that reigns in Venice now, also tastes like heaven!

Sciroppo al pino mugo is often used in the ancient recipes of the estuary and hinterland: Pine branches were shipped down the Piave river, towards Iesolo, and the people living in the northern Lagoon thus received the ingredients that go into the syrup. The second ingredient of this crespella dolce is pinoli, pine nuts, which stem from the pine woods (pini marittimi – Mediterranean stone pines) lining the Litorale (sandy beaches and dunes on the Cavallino Peninsula). The third ingredient is simply – panettone slices. Or pandoro. Or, any sweet bread for Natale left in the dispensa (pantry).

Crespella dolce ai pinoli, pistacchi e sciroppo al pino mugo: Sweet pancakes with pine nuts, pistachios, flavored with home-made pine syrup:

  • Prepare your favorite pancake dough, and heat olive oil in a pan. Fry the pandoro or panettone, cut into cubes, with pistachios, sultanas and pine nuts for a minute, then carefully pour the pancake dough round the panettone cubes.
  • Bake your crespella until golden brown and crispy.
  • Dust with icing sugar and cinnamon, and add a spoonful of syrup and another of honey (replace the sugar with honey).

So, this is a rich, sweet, spicy winter crespella = pancake, as nuts and sultanas were considered spice in the Venetian past. A dish that comes in several varieties, but families in the northern Lagoon chose this one, as grandmother tells, especially during January, to make sure everyone would get precious, nourishing ingredients during winter (nuts, pistachios), to restore health (the sweet pine syrup), to use cheap ingredients (well, the Veneto was very poor..), and to make sure no leftovers were thrown away (panettone). It’s a dish that looks and sounds rather brutto ma buono, but it tastes heavenly if you enjoy it for breakfast on a dark day in January, perhaps lighting a candle or two on the table.

We’ll be talking more about ancestral foods from the Lagoon, pine nuts and pine trees soon!

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