Here in Venice, the whole month of September is considered summer with a bonus: It’s harvest time (la vendemmia!) and the flowers and vegetables in the Lagoon enjoy a “second spring”. This means they look so lush again after the hottest months of the year have passed, and the wine harvest, la vendemmia, is taking place.
Most herb gardens and orchards are located in the northern Lagoon, while you can find most fishing grounds in the south. There are two ways of drawing a border between the northern and southern Lagoon, and both are valid: First, you could consider the former river Brenta as the border: This river bed is actually the Grand Canal in Venice!
Second, there’s a real watershed running through the Lagoon. It means that there’s a border between the predominantly fresh water and salt water areas. Over time, this watershed shifted: The Lagoon, during the past 1200 years, has been changed considerably by the engineers of the former Republic of Venice. They built dams to prevent the Lagoon from turning into an unhealthy swamp (read more details about the watersheds in this post on our blog).
Everything can be grown in the Lagoon that humans have ever needed or wished for, my grandmother says: From fish to olive trees to erbe spontanee (wild herbs) such as portulaca, spinacino selvatico (wild spinach) and salicornia.
Spring and autumn is the best time to collect Lagoon herbs (and you can see many Venetian chefs do just that, right now!). It means that if you would like to taste dishes flavored with Lagoon herbs, do visit Venice between March and May, or in September and October.
The northern islands in the Lagoon (Mazzorbo, Mazzorbetto, Torcello, Le Vignole, Sant’Erasmo in particular) are dedicated to growing vegetables and herbs, and there’s also the Cavallino – Lio Piccolo peninsula reaching into the into the Lagoon amidst le barene – muddy sandbanks, submerged by tides twice a day and overgrown with limonium.
During the times of the Republic, honey was made from limonium, a Lagoon treat that you can buy at the Rialto Market again (I buy it at La Casa del Parmigiano’s). With limonium blossoming, it looks like the Lagoon is covered with lavender from late July to early September. You can see this violet – tinged Lagoon in the video below:
In September, you can also harvest the violet varieties of le prugne (plums) in the Lagoon orchards. Did you know that on the islands of Torcello, Mazzorbo and on San Michele in Isola, grapes are harvested now, and later in October?
There are also vineyards in the Lagoon’s secret edible gardens, located off Torcello, on the island group of Santa Cristina. The name of Le Carline’s wine is Ammiana, recalling an ancient island that was once as important as Torcello (read more about Ammiana in my post on the Venetian sunset islands here).
The archipelago of Torcello-Ammiana-Sant’Ariano-Santa Cristina represents the cuore antico (ancient heartland) of the Lagoon. The Romans were growing wine on this fertile yet slightly salty ground. Mostly, these vineyards were experimental, because the salty taste came also into the wine!
The lagoonscape changed in the 16th century when the northern Lagoon almost turned into a swamp due to river debris. The vineyards in this area were given up. Ancient vines were rediscovered about 30 years ago, so the vines growing now in this area are the same, or similar to the ones, enjoyed by the Venetians 700 years ago.
The vineyards on Sant’Erasmo are branded as Orto di Venezia. 2,000 hectars of land are dedicated to growing a wine consisting of 60% Istrian grapes and 20% Malvasia. Venetians celebrate their La Festa del Mosto on Sant’Erasmo every year on the first Sunday of October, and it’s a very lively experience you should absolutely come and see!
Sant’Erasmo reflects the Lagoon’s long agricultural history: This is a rather sprawling island, of the same size as Venice (the Rivo Alto island group). There are wild gardens amidst blackberry hedges, sorrel, wild chamomile and portulaca, artichoke fields, and there are greenhouses to grow vegetables all year long, and of course, the vineyards.
A bit further to the north from Sant’Erasmo, the golden Doge’s wine grows on the Venissa estate on the island of Marzzorbo. The first vendemmia (grape harvest) took place in 2010 after eight years of research and experimenting. The Bisol family, supported by Regione del Veneto, cultivates ancient vines rediscovered here by chance in the wild gardens of the northern Lagoon:
It wasn’t just any wine, but the one for which Venice was famous for during the times of the Republic, l’uva Dorona, from which il vino d’oro, the golden Doge’s wine, is made from.
You can see the golden Doge’s wine in an image I took during one of our culinary retreats at Venissa’s. What a pleasure and adventure tasting this wine after six hundred years!
The golden wine has the color of honey and tastes like nectar and amber with a flowery – muscat bouquet. Just right with risotto all’uva e salicornia – sweet-sour grapes and salicornia herb risotto that my grandfather used to make when he was young. We’ll share this recipe, and more wine stories of the Lagoon, in our upcoming Autumn in Venice online cooking class!
We’ll also cover the forgotten garden islands located off Torcello and you’ll see how each part of the Lagoon fulfilled a purpose. These aren’t islands “orbiting around Venice”. On the contrary, Venice has always depended on them to survive.