A short post today as we are celebrating La Festa di San Marco in Venice! This year, we cannot celebrate publicly of course, such as buying the red roses (boccolò) on Piazza San Marco or meeting with friends, but we can cook a special dinner today at home and learn more about the special story of San Marco – Saint Mark and his importance for Venice ..
San Marco has been the Patron Saint of the city and the former Republic of Venice since the year 828 AD. He arrived in the Lagoon when he was still alive, shipwrecked during a storm, and returned much later, brought here by Rustico di Torcello, a merchant, from Alexandria (Egypt) to Venice, to be buried in the Basilica di San Marco.
Venetians are very aware of how this Feast conjures up ancient memories. So there’s more to this day than celebrating it with spring dishes such as the famous risi e bisi (garden pea risotto), and recalling the legend of the boccolò red rose. These traditions are just the peak of an iceberg. The meaning of La Festa di San Marco goes much deeper, so let’s explore what and whom we really celebrate on 25 April in Venice.
La Festa di San Marco is about the very reason Venice exists. San Marco is the symbol and strong protector, having arrived in the city from the Levant, where Venetian creativity and commerce originated in the first place. Sourcing ingredients in the Levant, creating their own goods from these ingredients, and selling them all over Europe enabled the Venetians to create and build a sumptuous city like Venice on 118 islands.
I think the notion “Piazza di Rialto” covers it all. Rialto is an umbrella term for all trading and business done during 1,300 years of history that ended on 12 May 1797. And Piazza I use in its literal sense referring to stock exchange. The Rialto wasn’t (just) the fish and fruit market but the core of a vibrant trading nation, predecessor of the financial centers in our times. Under the arcades and in the buildings surrounding the Rialto, all parts of the value chain of multiple business ventures were steered from. Banco Giro. Tutte le cose passano per Rialto. All things pass through Rialto. It’s here where goods were unloaded. Sorted. Mixed. Packaged. Loaded on Ships. Financed. Fortunes Won. Lost. New Strategies Made.
Exotic merchandise arrived here on boats at Riva del Vin or farther ahead along the Grand Canal. During the times of the Serenissima, the Grand Canal was lined with (smaller) merchant vessels having arrived from the Punta Dogana further up the Grand Canal (Punta della Dogana = customs point).
On 25 April, we’re celebrating the Venetians, and in particular, the merchants and artisans of Venice. I mestieri di Venezia – the artisans of Venice that today produce on a much smaller scale what during more than 1300 was amongst the most desired luxury goods in Europe. You can see some artists in one of my favorite videos on Venice, produced on behalf of Rene Caovilla (Thanks to Dream of Venice for sharing it with us!).
During difficult times, it’s helpful to have the 1600-year experience of Venice at hand: There’s so much we can learn from the past, about Venetian lifestyle and its unique business model, and perhaps think of how to apply it in our times. Venetians excelled in diplomacy and creativity. It was the Merchants of Venice who imported goods to Europe and the New World that we take granted for today. It’s a wide collection, ranging from sugar to spices and salt, medicine, essential oils, perfumes, tableware, carpets, mirrors, glassware and lamps. So yes, we think that this city has a huge potential to stand up and live again.
In particular, Venetians were pioneers in creating health and beauty products and healthy food, and in creating small wonders with herbs and spices. In addition to importing spices, they were cultivating botanical treasures from the Far East and Indian Ocean at home in Venice, creating fragrant remedies and implementing public health initiatives still practiced today: For example, lazareto and quarantena are Venetian expressions relevant in our times as never before ..
Venetian merchants imported spices and created their own mixtures, which they sold all over Europe, accompanied by “marketing folders” and recipe booklets. In short, the merchants made most of their money with the spice trade, accounting for more than 70% of income in Venice. Yes, the buildings of our city were financed using income from the spice trade.
These merchants brought plants and seeds back to Venice. Some plants were cultivated in state-financed experimental gardens, in particular at the Giardino Botanico – Botanical Garden in Padua created in 1545, while others were cultivated in the private gardens of Venice. Below you can see what remains of one of these lush gardens today ..
There are many unknown stories and experiences connected to Venetian culinary heritage: Venetian spice merchants, on their voyages to the Near and Far East, came across Ayurvedic recipes for health and traditional Chinese medicine in the 10th century. Marco Polo wasn’t even first to travel along the silk road to China. It certainly helped that Venice, in the beginning, was a province of Byzantium, so her cooking style and choice of ingredients were influenced by ancient Greek dishes. So you see – there’s so much to tell and rediscover, and who knows it might be helpful for the task we have ahead – reinventing Venice for the years to come.
Risi e Bisi: A historical menu for 25 April, and its special story
Of course, the menu in Venice on 25 April reflects the exuberant spring – we are surrounded by wisteria, roses, and the most wonderful nature exploding in colors! We eat bisi, garden peas that grow in abundance in the estuary around Venice: Bisi di Peseggia, a village of Scorzè and thus a part of the Greater Venice area. Since 1993, La Sagra dei Piselli has been celebrated here in April and May, to recall Risi e Bisi, the national dish of Venice, offered by the Doge during a dinner banquet on 25 April. Originally, it’s a liquid rice soup flavored with the first garden peas (from the estuary), spring onions and other greens.
EL Risoto del Dose: Did you know that there are two variants of Risi e Bisi? During the times of the Serenissima Republic, two variants of the same dish were prepared in Venice. One was made specifically for the Doge and his entourage, eaten at the spring banquet in the Doge’s private apartment. The second variant is more rustic, using chicken stock to cook the rice. El Risoto del Dose looked lush green, as it contained two kinds of peas: The big garden peas were cooked and pureed. The smaller, succulent and fine peas were used in whole and carefully stirred in without crushing.
It’s these forgotten flavors that captured the world for 1,300 years, built a special reputation and made Venice the town you can see today and marvel at. We will share more stories on ancient Venetian life + flavors in our upcoming online class – Roses and Spices – Click here to find out more and be notified when it opens.16