Updated on 8 March 2019
March ushers in the Venetian spring feasts, a colorful and fragrant season which will last until mid-June, when the heat is getting too strong for plants to thrive. But then, Venetians have always been so inventive when it comes to feasts and celebrating them. And on 8 March, La Festa della Donna is celebrated here just like it is elsewhere in Italy. And if we are lucky, as we were today on 8 March 2019, Venice is glowing, enveloped in a golden-yellow light reflecting the mimosa blossoming in the gardens. Yes, this is what Nonna’s garden is like right now!
Grandmother also tells us that until about 50 years ago, March used to be the first month when Venetians were harvesting edible blossoms. Edible shrubs have always grown in walled kitchen gardens here in Venice, in the horti conclusi, which were then so much more than just kitchen gardens! These fragrant shrubs were blossoming once and often, twice or three times a year, and were planted next to aromatics and vegetables, to provide them with shade in the parching summer. One of these shrubs whose blossoms were used in the kitchen are mimosa trees.
Today, we don’t bake or cook with mimosa in Venice often. What has remained is the candied spring blossoms. which are sold in delicatessen stores in town. Rosa Salva, one of my favorite pastry stores, is now offering a nice selection of candied blossoms and leaves. You can choose between candied violets, rose buds, mimosa blossoms, mint and verbena leaves. This is where I get my candied mimosa blossoms to decorate a traditional Venetian spring sponge cake whose recipe I’m sharing below for you as special treat for Women’s Day.
Italy started celebrating La Festa della Donna in the poor years following WW2. No money was left to buy expensive gifts during these difficult times, so the sunny spring blossoms were dedicated to women for March 8. And in addition to the flowering mimosa twigs women receive in Italy today, there are also sweets decorated with mimosa.
Here is our suggestion for you to enjoy an early spring menu with Venetian dishes, perhaps for La Festa della Donna! These dishes come with a benefit, for their ingredients work well against spring fatigue! We are still using winter ingredients right now in Venice, so we need to add spices to create delicious and festive menus. Colorful combinations of spices strengthen the immune system in the first place, adapting body and mind to the terse colors of spring. Any kind of tiredness or dizzy head can be avoided, says Grandmother, just by using the right herbs and spices in the right manner.
Our risotto primavera – spring risotto for Women’s Day contains the first spinach leaves from the garden (!), tomatoes and red peppers from the market. It is enriched with a light spice mixture made from ginger, lemon grass, saffron and the special, yellow curry mixture you can buy at Drogheria Mascari. To add a decisive touch, we grate yellow cheese, melt it in a pan in olive oil and make cialde di formaggio – cheese slices – with it, which are then used to decorate the risotto.
As main course we suggest branzìn ai peperoni rossi, oven-baked sea brass with fried potatoes, sweet red peppers, fried onions and dill. We season the vegetables dish with yellow curry, yellow mustard seeds, chili flakes and dill. Before serving, we sprinkle fish and vegetables with coarse sale marino, sea salt from Chioggia. By adding the salt at the end, we avoid that too much salt is soaked up while cooking.
What makes this menu special is the mimosa cake – pan di spagna vanigliato al bergamotto con glassa al bergamotto, cioccolato bianco e fiori di mimosa canditi, which is vanilla-bergamot-flavored sponge cake decorated with a frosting made from candied mimosa blossoms, bergamot-flavored pudding and white chocolate.
Here’s your recipe:
How to bake the cake: You will need the following ingredients: 3 eggs, 60 gr sugar, 50 gr flour, the peel and juice of half a bergamot (or lemon), and four table spoons vanilla sugar. Beat eggs and sugar, carefully add the flour in spoonfuls, the grated bergamot (or lemon peel) and its juice, and the vanilla sugar. Arrange the dough in a buttered cake form and bake the cake in the oven at 180 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until the cake turns golden brown.
How to make the frosting: Leave the cake to cool, and in the meantime prepare the bergamot pudding: Bring 1/8 liter milk to the boil with 2 tablespoons cornflour starch, one heaped tablespoon brown sugar and 1/2 tablespoon vanilla sugar. Stir until the mixture starts boiling, take the pan off the heat and continue stirring with a wooden spoon, adding a few drops of bergamot essential oil in the end. Cover the cake with this pudding frosting, and while still hot, decorate with the candied mimosa blossoms and a bar of white chocolate which you have slowly melted in a pan.
I find this cake reflects the taste of mimosa blossoms, which are rather fresh like a lemon zest while holding a deeper note perfectly expressed by the vanilla that goes into the cake. There is of course the original version of the Italian mimosa cake which is based on the same sponge cake recipe. To make this cake, you would cut a few pieces of your sponge cake into tiny squares to decorate the frosting. We love to drink a bergamot-lemon flavored black tea with this cake, it’s like inhaling a bunch of mimosa blossoms :-)
More about spring in Venice: On 21 March, we will be sending our new Venice Garden Guide to subscribers of the Monthly Venice E-Mail Magazine! If you aren’t subscribed yet, click here to receive your copy on 21 March 2019.10