La Storica is what Venice has been focusing on, at least since last Saturday when several meet-ups were organized in town to celebrate the upcoming regatta taking place. The Feast is called Disnar per la Storica – eating and drinking and getting to know each other. Meeting old friends around town and of course, the participants in the regatta.
Click here to watch a video showing how tables are laid in Venice, waiting for the Venetians to sit down and celebrate.
So yes, the Regata storica is one of the most significant events in Venice, ushering in what we call La Quinta Stagione – the fifth season which is a special benevolent summer. Mellow afternoons and balmy mornings … Yet, September usually starts with a storm, which we’ve been witnessing this year like we did in the last few years and even when I was a child. That doesn’t mean the end of summer is upon us. On the contrary, the light is getting clearer because hefty thunderstorms have broken the August haze. It’s warm but it’s not the heat that makes you sweat as soon as you leave the house. There must be a reason why the Venice Film Festival is also taking place now in September :-)
The markets in Venice benefit from the most colorful season of the year. You could say that a second spring is coming to the Mediterranean in autumn. That’s also true as many vegetable plants recover from the summer heat and you get the finest produce once again until the onset of winter, sometime in December. Look at the colorful array of vegetables and fruit that is selling at the Rialto Market these days.
That means our September menus will be based on tomatoes, prunes, zucchini, squash, figs and grapes. In the picture you can see the famous uva nera – black grapes. A local variety of black grape is the fragolino grape which grows on the islands and around Altino, on the northern edge of the Lagoon.
You also find fragolino grapes in private gardens in Venice. For example, in the 15th century garden of Palazzo Zorzi where Al Giardinetto da Severino, one of my favorite restaurants, is located.
Just across the Rialto Market, Drogheria Mascari, the gourmet & spice store, usually changes its window “stage” in the last week of August, as soon as they re-open their store after the summer break. You can buy the first tartufi, but what struck me as beautiful was their spice window which now looks like this: cumino di Malta (an ancient spice, used in particular in Arab and Turkish food, but also to some extent in Greece), zenzero (ginger), pimento, noce moscata (nutmeg), and anice stellato (star aniseed). From this offer, we make a spice mixture for summer squash soup with which we start our menu to celebrate La Regata Storica.
Crema di zucca spezià all'anice stellato - Spicy summer squash cream soup with star anise
My grandmother is an expert in making soups, and the cream soups – le creme – are amongst her favorites. She must have collected and invented fifty-plus recipes for squash soup alone! These days, we get summer squash at the Rialto Market, whose rind looks and feels soft. The zucca marina harvested around Chioggia, available later in October at the markets, is harder to cut.
To make our family’s summer squash soup, cook 2 cups diced summer squash (any yellow or orange colored summer squash), 2 mid-sized tomatoes, also diced, and a small onion (sliced) in 1/4 liter water which you flavor with a handful of herbs like carrot greens, parsley and / or lovage. (we never use artificial soup cubes !). As soon as the squash dices have been cooked, puree them carefully with the herbs and sea salt. Add about 1/8 to 1/4 liter water depending on how thick and creamy you like your soup. Now add the spice mixture (see below), cook for two minutes, then let the soup rest for another 10 minutes. Serve with a few drops of olive oil, a tablespoon of cream (panna) and garden herbs. We used the Venetian favorite zichoria, but chives or parsley also work well.
Our spice mixture for the summer squash soup:
1 teaspoon red pepper corns, 1/2 teaspoon cumino di Malta (cumin powder), a few slices of ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1 teaspoon sweet red paprika powder, a hint of cinnamon and one pod of aniseed (which you remove as soon as the soup is ready to serve).
What makes the soup savory and provides a slight liquorice flavor, so loved by the Venetians, is star anise, an ancient spice Venetians came across in the 14th century in South East Asia, probably in China. It’s still a favorite these days, not just in savory dishes but it’s also widely used for desserts and cakes – like in the cake we love to eat in September, crostata di fichi, prugne nere e lavanda alla glassa di anice stellato – Blue prune, fig and lavender cake with aniseed frosting.
For lavender is now blossoming the third time in the Venetian kitchen garden. We use lavender blossoms and leaves to flavor cakes and to make lavender sirup.
In September, the other favorite ingredients here in Venice are prunes and figs. We have quite a variety of prunes here – le prugne rosa (rose-colored plums), or le suchete – golden-yellow plums from the Cavallino area next to the Lagoon which I ate for the first time this year in mid-July. I also love prugne nere – deep blue plums which are very sweet and succulent. Perfect for the cake which is easy and quick to prepare and what’s more, it can be topped with a gourmet frosting made from star anise.
Crostata di fichi, prugne nere e lavanda alla glassa di anice stellato - Prune, fig and lavender cake with aniseed frosting
For the dough, mix 300 gr butter (at room temperature), 3 eggs, 250 gr confectioner’s sugar, then add 1 packet (approx. 1 1/2 tablespoons) vanilla sugar and 1 tablespoon freshly picked (or dried) lavender blossoms. Finally, add 1/8 liter milk and 300 gr white or all-purpose flour mixed with 1 tablespoon baking powder. Spread the dough evenly, about 1-2 cm high, on a baking tray which you have lined with baking paper and top the cake with 3 cups of figs and prunes (sliced).
Bake the cake at 170 degrees Celsius for approx. 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Leave to cool and then pour the frosting on the cake. Here’s the recipe for the frosting:
Glassa alla mandorla e all’anice stellato – Star anise-almond frosting for the cake
In 1/16 liter water, cook one pod of aniseed, leave to infuse and cool down for ten minutes. Take out the aniseed, and add 40 gr ground almonds, 40 gr maize starch and 40 gr confectioner’s sugar. In case the frosting is too thick, add 1-2 tablespoons of water. Pour the frosting over the cake and leave to dry for about 1-2 hours.
The star anise spice and mixtures containing it will accompany us through winter, due to its fine flavor and also because it’s a potent remedy against colds and fevers.