Speziando: A Traditional Venetian Advent Menu Using Spices

When the colors of the season reflect our December spice mixtures … last week, we were so lucky: In the morning, the city was illuminated by warm, rose-golden lights, something that happens only rarely in December. I tried to capture them in the image above, all dancing sun spots and bright reflections on the waters of Rio dei Greci.

Looking at reflections  like this one always makes me think that Venetian creativity, present and past, must come from this special, liquid, environment. It has been an inspiration for paintings, sculptures, glass art, jewelry, and, why not, delicious food and spice mixtures!

Like my grandmother says, this time of the year, prima delle gelate – before the first frost arrives, is the most colorful time with regard to food in the Veneto. The agricultural year just started, on 1 November, which doesn’t come logical, as nature gets ready for hibernation. Yet, the Lagoon and its Estuary now offer lush winter greens and the first winter citrus fruit. You can also find quinces, apples, kiwis, and pomegranates, in the gardens and at the markets. And there are so many persimmons this year!

Eating seasonal vegetables and fruit is the obvious secret ingredient of my grandmother to keep healthy during winter. In case you caught cold – something one cannot always avoid – seasonal food has all the ingredients to help you get better soon. These powers can be reinforced by eating in “the ancient Venetian way”, that is, by adding a wise mixture of spices to your food. Easy, but there are basics you need to know, and in this blog post we show you how we do it in Venice – or, at least, how our grandparents used to do it.

At the same time, this post introduces you to our upcoming blog series and ebook, available from 18 December, Essenza di Natale a Venezia. I think there aren’t many books on Christmas food in Venice. La cucina delle feste – festive food exists, though, but mostly in the kitchens at private homes.

Thus, if you visit Venice, the food you eat for Christmas at gourmet restaurants, or trattorie, is excellent, but it’s not the kind of Christmas food we grew up with as children. These dishes are very different, sophisticated and simple at the same time. Now, in our blog series and ebook, we’ll show you how you can enjoy a Venetian-style Christmas at your home.

Before we cook, it’s time to see the markets! There’s still a lot of the late autumn vegetables around, plus the colorful fruit that goes into our Venetian Christmas cookies (yes, we have these too! Many pastry store are selling them, finally). Usually, these cookies are made from dried fruit, almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts, combined with syrups, cocoa, jam, sweet spice mixtures, and vanilla.

Enriching your food with heart-warming spices works in preventing you catch cold in the first place: Spices are the secret ingredients that make seasonal food so powerful, and Venetians have accumulated immense know-how on using spices for more than 1,600 years.

I noticed that those simple dishes, which my grandmother has loved eating all her life, are now dubbed gourmet food. Risotto di gò is such an example, which is a simple fish risotto, but must be cooked in the right way to enhance its flavors. This is an example when spices can help: In grandmother’s recipe, the risotto requires a lot of white pepper and a tiny hint of cinnamon!

There’s one thing all these seasonal foods have in common: They strengthen the immune system, shortening any bout of flu you may suffer from. If you know how to do it, you can cook in the same way at your home, benefiting from the same principles like you would if you were in Venice.

So, here comes our spicy Advent menu, consisting of simple food balanced out, and adapted to, the cold season with spices. This menu is based on grandmother’s recipe journals, using ingredients that are NOW available at the markets, and seasonal spice mixes which vary according to temperature, humidity, sun, or rain, AND one’s personal mood.

Risotto allo zafferano con radicchio precoce

Risotto with white onions, garnished with radicchio leaves and flavored with saffron

In the image above, you can see rose-colored radicchio leaves: I buy them at the floating market at the far end of Via Garibaldi. This dish is enriched with one of the most valuable spices on earth, which is saffron. And you can benefit from its healing properties: Saffron goes into your risotto just long enough to color your dish, just stir it in a few minutes before you finish cooking the risotto. Using the RIGHT amount is also essential: two threads suffice to color your dish pale yellow, and won’t alter the natural taste of your risotto too much.

Pesse spezià al curcuma, curry, anice stellato, aneto e pepe lungo

Fried fish, flavored with curcuma, curry, star anise and long black pepper corns 

In Venice we have the saying that you MUST NEVER EVER flavor your fish. Fish is best eaten without anything, not even side dishes!, and we even leave out the lemon slice. The only herb accepted is a bunch of parsley .. There’s one exception, though: In winter, white fish can be flavored with a wise spice mixture, and this is how you do it: Fry the fish in a pan, take it out and keep it warm. Add the spices (curry(!!), star anise, pepper) to the oil in which the fish was fried. Heat it briefly, then wait for another 3 minutes. Pour the spicy oil mixture over the fish and your contorno (side dish: dried tomatoes fried along with thin potato slices). By the way, do use maize oil = olio di semi per friggere: NEVER use olive oil when frying fish!!

Legumi cotti di bietola, radicchio precoce, spinaci con pinoli e uva passa

Warm radicchio, bietola and spinach salad, flavored with olive oil and decorated roasted pine nuts, raisins, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and freshly picked parsley

This dish brings out the full force of le verdure – vegetables that are now in season (mostly, green ones and radicchio), combined with roasted pine nuts, and a hint of cinnamon (used to enhance the flavors of many vegetable dishes in historical recipes, and in grandmother’s traditional Venetian recipes).

Tisana di camomilla allo zenzero,  essenza de fior de limon e miele di barena

Camomile-ginger infusion, flavored with lemon flower essence and honey from the barene (Lagoon marshes)

This is what grandmother used to drink in her childhood when she felt ill. It’s basically chamomile tea (Roman chamomile from her own garden, dried buds picked during the summer), and a piece of ginger root which we grow in pots on the terrace during summer. Leave this hot drink to cool for about ten minutes (don’t drink hot tea when suffering from a sore throat). Flavor your tisana (infusion) with a two spoons of freshly pressed lemon juice (or in our case, the delicious lemon blossom syrup grandmother makes), and a very special honey: miele di barene from the Lagoon marshes, which in the northern Lagoon, where grandmother grew up, consist mostly of limonium.

Latte caldo al mandarino e anice stellato

Warm almond milk flavored with freshly pressed tangerines and star anise

Grandmother’s secret (it really works wonders!!) to get back your voice as soon as possible in case you are suffering from a cold, is our warm almond milk flavored with a tablespoon of freshly pressed tangerines, and one piece of star anise (be careful with star anise if your blood pressure is high).

Cioccolata calda al gianduia con biscottini veneziani

Hot chocolate flavored with gianduia (home-made nougat), and Venetian biscuits (such as zaléti…)

Dissolve two tablespoons of ready-made, or in our case, home-made – gianduia, in a cup of Venetian hot chocolate. Flavor your chocolate with rum or grappa, if you are feeling particularly cold, or add a teaspoon of crema di pistacchio. Never underestimate the strength of cocoa and hazelnuts combined: They can lift one’s mood and help warm up from inside. We hope that these recipes will help you get better soon, in case you caught the flu ..


Within the next few days, we will share these recipes, and more, in our Christmas e-book! Next week, we will also share our annual Venice Holidays Gift Guide, stay tuned :-)

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