It’s summer solstice time and Venice is taking a collective breath. Another year has passed and before everyone is really getting into summer mood, the neighborhood outdoor feasts are back in town. Solstizio means there’s a break in Venetians’ mind before switching into vacation mood. It will be different in summer, with day trippers descending upon the city like they’ve been doing ever since I can remember. My first memories go back to the 1980s and Venice was overcrowded in the summer even then, at least in the San Marco area.
While lasting changes in lifestyle took place on the mainland (as Venetians would call Italy and the world beyond the bridge, Ponte della Libertà), as a sort of reaction, or rather, counter trend to globalized and digital life, people have been flocking to the ancient Venice in increasing numbers for the last few decades.
But for now, those ten days roughly separating us from July belong to us. Venetians love their summer feasts, private, semi-private and public ones, meeting up with friends before many are leaving for extended holidays in the Dolomiti mountains.
The first feast, La Festa della Bragora, is taking place in my neighborhood, less than 10 minutes from home.
The other feast, La Festa di San Piero de Casteo, is located at the far end of Castello, in front of the ancient church, once the seat of the Venetian Patriarch. Venetian summer feasts go back to the 16th century, evocating the ancient Lunedì del Lido tradition. Around 500 years ago, when the concept of vacation was non-existent and yet, people were looking for some rest during summer in the Lagoon, Venetians took another day “off” after Sundays, so that on Monday by noon, people were packing up their bags with food and drinks and taking to their boats and island beaches. The party continued in the evening when they returned to Venice and enjoyed dinner on the quays, in particular on the Zattere in Dorsoduro.
The Government of the Republic was obliging and encouraging the foreign settlers in town to join in and show off their food, drinks and music. And soon, Greek, Armenian and Jewish dishes became intrinsic parts of the (culinary) melting pot that Venice was. Yes, our city is a win-win melting pot as her Government was approaching communities in Dalmatia, Greece and other Levantine cities (Alexandria, Constantinople in particular) asking them to move to Venice after several pestilences had killed almost half the Venetian population. This is why certain streets and neighborhoods have ancient names that could tell a million forgotten stories – and recipes – for these new inhabitants of Venice also coined her food culture.
The sestiere which became home to most of the Levantine merchants and settlers arriving in the Lagoon (especially, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453) is Castello. During summer, their residents showed off their recipes which soon became the most important part of Venetian cuisine, unique and famous in Europe.
And in our times in 2018, between 22-24 June, the Festa del Solstizio – Solstice Feast is celebrated on Campo della Bragora. When the sun sets and visitors are spared the odd shower or thunderstorm, they look forward to savoring the simple family food of the past, surrounded by flickering candles throwing large shadows against the Levantine facades and lush green trees on the campo. Especially on mild summer nights, the silk tree and oleander bushes smell irresistibly. Walking past them feels like bathing in scented clouds of vanilla and lemon balm, recalling the gardens sleeping behind the red brick walls.
And what do we eat and drink on such a night ?
In the past, it was wine from the Greek islands or flavored spice and herbal drinks like lemon-lavender water, rose water enhanced with cinnamon and just the tiniest hint of pepper. Venetian rosoli – spice flavored liquors and others made from locally grown herbs. Elder flower syrup enhanced with rose blossoms. Cold coffee flavored with a four-spice mix (secret!) and almond liquor, called amaretto. The drinks were mixed by the spezieri (spice masters) who turned into pharmacists in the 15th century.
After all, Venetians of the past were always looking for healing components in their food and drink.
Public health was regulated by the Republic of Venice, food and drinks and their ingredients in Venice or arriving here, were severely monitored by the Government to ensure Venetians were eating high-quality and healthy food.
In our times, it’s still wine from the Greek islands that we get on Solstice Night on Campo della Bragora, and home-made dishes brought here from the surrounding cafes and restaurants. Chances are you will find different dishes every night, and if you are looking for those ancient flavors, you will most certainly find them in the family recipes passed on from one generation to the other.
Regarding cocktails and sun downer drinks, there are three trends in 2018. Venetian spritz is leading the numbers, followed by golden spritz (flavored with a special Greek wine and a few spices – yes, here we go, here are the ancient flavors clad in modern names).
It was Arrigo Cipriani who after WW2, invented the seasonal signature cocktail flavors of Venice (but not the spritz, white wine diluted with water, which was “invented” by Austrian soldiers in Venice during the 19th century).
Mr. Cipriani introduced not only the Bellini but also the Mimosa (white wine flavored with freshly pressed tangerine juice) and the Rossini (white wine flavored with blood oranges). In the summer, you’d rather taste the signature Bellini drink made with white peaches that Mr. Cipriani originally imported from France. Today, the peaches used for the drink grow around Treviso.
Trend #2 is the all-Italian orzata, which is almond-spice syrup diluted with water. A Venetian drink originally, this one is great to taste on a hot afternoon at Café Florian. And trend #3 is simply freshly pressed and mixed fruit juice. For example, I love the freshly pressed apple-basil-orange juice served on the rooftop terrace of hotel Colombina, located near the Rialto bridge, and I usually go up there with guests or simply when I want to get a healthy drink after shopping in the hot summer sun.