Roses and Spices: Rediscovering Historical Venetian Recipes

When you first come to Venice, can you make out a special culinary style of this city that differs from other regions in Italy? For example, Rome is famous for specialties like pasta cacio e pepe and spaghetti carbonara. The Italian region Liguria is well-known for their delicious and refreshing pesto al basilico. And the Veneto, or rather in our case, Venice and the Lagoon? Some might say pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup) is a Venetian signature dish, and it is certainly one of the winter treats we love best in Venice to this day. But then, local specialties just reflect the culinary style (culinary culture) of a city or country. Culinary style always comes with a purpose, that is creating healthy and nourishing food.

We must not mix up the specialty plate of a city or region with the particulary style of cooking (= culinary culture). The culinary culture of a city was developed over centuries, and is not visible to visitors at first glance. And in the case of Venice, this is a long, adventurous story of pioneering merchants who created Venetian culinary culture over 1,200 years.

Exactly 222 years ago, the map of Europe thoroughly changed. The country, which for 1,200 years had worked with the markets in the Levant, acted as premier financier, and that was famous for its healing kitchen and natural medicine for 1,200 years, ceased to exist on 12 May 1797. I’m referring to the Republic of Venice. This day in Venice is still recalled as El Ziorno Tremendo, the incredible day, when life came to a standstill, and the consequences and often weaknesses resulting from it, can still be felt in Venice today.

But then, life continued, and Venice developed into the city we know today, with all her good points and downsides. Venice built new friendships and created new skills, taken up and developed by the wonderful artisans and artists in town. But with the fall of the Republic, scientific progress, medical research, healing recipes and much creativity was lost. In particular, the culinary culture of Venice, whose inhabitants lived primarily from importing spices in the East, creating new mixtures and selling them all over Europe, fell into oblivion. What can we do to recover these historical recipes, and is it worth doing all this work? Can we benefit from these recipes in our time?

Around five million documents, amongst them books, notary acts, scientific works etc. were transported from the Doge’s Palace to the Archivio di Stato, the Venetian State Archive situated at the Frari Monastery complex, and its dependances, in the years following 1815. Amongst them are the delicious recipes and medical books, featuring easy and sometimes surprising natural remedies, waiting to be rediscovered! This is work in progress, slow progress, because there’s a language barrier as well: These texts are written in Latin, Ancient Greek (koiné variant), and Venet (Venessián). These three languages were the official languages of the Republic of Venice, the longest-lived and one of the most successful commercial nations in the world.

Our family did a lot of researh at the Venetian State Archive and other libraries in town to explore the basics of the culinary culture of a Republic who made her living from spices. In addition to original texts, we found a number of valuable medicinal and recipe books written in the 19th century, whose authors were born when the Republic still existed, and memory was fresh.

Rediscovering Venetian culinary culture from original sources has been a family project started by grandmother Lina in 1945, taken up by my father, and continued by Lina and myself from 2001. Why are we doing this? Because we think we are missing many valuable and delicious recipes, that could do so much for our health in a natural way. Because this is food that improves health immediately and in the long term and is the natural way to mitigate, and perhaps avoid, chronic illnesses such as diabetes, overweight, migrains, allergies, etc., in the first place.

Returning to specialties of local food, Venice has a specialty you have most probably tasted, first created in the city on the terraferma, Treviso. It is tiramisu, or rather Tira Me Sù as it was known in the past here in Venice. I found that a gourmet store located near San Zulian is serving the original recipe. Another specialty rediscovered during Carnival just four years ago is frittelles. And now in April, Venetians have always loved risi e bisi, a creamy risotto made from garden peas AND baccelli (pea pods): In 2011, the original recipe created by unknown chefs during the times of the Republic of Venice was taken up by the Proloco Scorzé Association, and presented to the public during the first edition of their annual Festa dei Bisi (Garden Peas Feast).

But what about the framework behind these examples? The culinary culture of a city / country / region can best be described by means of a framework. It is unique to any city, comprising local plants growing wild in woods and meadows, or cultivated in gardens. It also includes ingredients from other regions and countries: In the case of Venice, these additional ingredients were the spices brought back home by the merchants of the Republic for more than 1,200 years. And this is where the fascinating, and unique, story of the forgotten culinary culture of our city starts.. the first fusion kitchen in the world, integrating notions of Roman, ancient Greek, Levantine, Ayurvedic and Asian food.

Historical Venetian cuisine fulfilled three simple criteria: Food equals medicine equals beauty. And for delivering these benefits, Venice became famous in Europe and beyond. The same ingredients, herbs, blossoms and spices, that went into food also went into medicines, perfumes, and beauty products.

Local herbs are the ancestral food part of Venetian cuisine. Exotic spices are the creative and incredibly delicious part of Venetian cuisine. Herbs and spices combined represent a culinary culture worth rediscovering, based on notions of flavors, colors and seasons.

We think that April, when Venice is so filled with flowers (think of wisteria, lilies, magnolia, cherries, and so much more!), is a good time to present our first tool kit for you to benefit from ancient Venetian cuisine. Throughout 2019, we will be publishing a series of seaonal online classes containing the complete framework of Venetian culinary culture, and seasonal recipes for you to taste at home, and in Venice. Our first class in this series, Spring Flavors and Ancestral Food of the Lagoon, is now online. Click here to see the details, and explore a fascinating and unknown side of Venice.

Secret Lagoon + Cook LIke a Venetian in spring Online Class
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2 Comments

  1. Vanessa wrote:

    What a wonderful post. You describe perfectly not just the unique culinary traditions of Venezia, but you also talk about the connections between good-quality food and health, as well as beauty. Now I am craving risi e bisi!

    Posted 4.12.19 Reply
    • Iris wrote:

      Thank you Vanessa! This post summarizes why we started blogging the first place. It is so fascinating exploring historical recipes that can be so helpful. BTW – we will publish the recipe for risi e bisi in a post on 25 April! xx

      Posted 4.12.19 Reply

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