April and May are the best months to taste the Lagoon on your plate :-) In Venice, we have five favorite spring herbs, sold everywhere, at the Rialto Market or at one of the floating markets in town. In this post, you will get to know the herbs, traditional recipes and four restaurant tips to taste traditional spring dishes in Venice.
In Venice these days, the vegetables you can see at the markets are mostly growing in the Lagoon. We do have access to Lagoon produce all year-long, but the choice is smaller during winter when fruit from the south or the mainland makes up for missing local produce. It’s not only at the Rialto Market that you can find theses delights coming in from the vegetable islands of the Northern Lagoon and from the islands Mazzorbo and Sant’Erasmo, but I suggest that you visit the main market by all means :-) the show these green herbal bouquets, so restoring and cleansing after winter, put on right now is just too mouth-watering.
Five favorite herbs of the Lagoon & Salsa Verde, the Venetian spring herb sauce
Herbs were the main source used to flavor dishes in the rustic cucina paesana in Venice, consisting of simple food and recipes. Amongst them were old family recipes from farms in and around the Lagoon. This style of cooking has become one of the two main trends in Venetian cuisine. And now, in April and May, the herbs are present everywhere on the islands, often growing in the grassy meadows separating artichoke fields, or even on the sand banks, half-submerged by water, called barene.
A typical recipe using herbs is salsa verde – the green dip which we use almost every day at home to flavor main dishes, top our pasta dishes or season salads. Amongst them are parsley, portulak, chives, garden mint, lemon thyme and basil, parsley and basil being used most often.
To make salsa verde, simply tear the herbs with your fingers into tiny pieces (never use a knife!!), cover them with olive oil and a hint of vinegar, stir well and add salt and pepper as you like. It’s as simple as that, and your reward will be a green sauce that Grandmother prepares in spring and keeps in little jars sott’olio, often lasting well into September.
I also love using these herbs to make risotto, so I prepare a dish with spring onions, and only when it is ready (al dente) do I add the greens after having them fried in olive oil and lemon juice. Finally, I season the risotto with another spoonful of lemon juice, olive oil, ground salt and pepper and parmesan cheese.
There are many more recipes to discover :-) For example, we use luppolo (hops) to make omelette, risotto and even a succulent spring soup.
In addition to botoi (artichokes), freshly harvested spinach leaves and young bietine take center stage. And here they are … barba di frate, bruscandoli, luppolo, carletti and agresti, our favorite green herbs in Venice. You’d have to taste them all to find out which ones are your favorites !
Here’s our tip if you want to take home spring herbs from Venice.
Whatever herbs you can now see at the Rialto Market, they were picked just a few hours ago because they wouldn’t last longer than a few hours at the market. So we really need to rush home and either use them to prepare lunch immediately or put them in the fridge, in which case you can keep them one day longer or two if you are very lucky.
Once they are picked, these herbs don’t live long .. Once I bought a bunch at the Rialto market in the morning and put them immediately in the fridge. In the afternoon, I wrapped them in tissues and packed them in a brown paper bag, leaving Venice in the evening. The next morning, they looked rather tired but were able to recover in the fridge in time for dinner :-) Bruscandoli do better traveling, while barba di frate and carletti are really weak.
The five best-known spring herbs from the Lagoon:
Barba di frate (salsola soda, saltwort, sometimes called agretti or agresti) is the most wiry-looking herb. We use it in particular to enrich omelette (also nice for breakfast!). Please note that we don’t eat these spring herbs raw but usually fry them carefully for a few minutes in olive oil. In that manner, they are ready to add flavor to a variety of dishes, seasoned with lemon juice, salt and pepper, such as gnocchi, risotto or pasta dishes.
The most rambling herb is luppolo (hops), and we cut and fry it and then use it to flavor a salad (green lettuce, onions, pine nuts). By the end of April, the luppolo variant called bruscandoli, is available, and soon, there will be carletti, a variety of silene vulgaris, as well. If you follow the links, you can see what these herbs look like.
L’Orto del Doge – the Doge’s Vegetable Garden
So where do all these herbs come from? Spring herbs take well on marshy islands. Like the numerous vegetables harvested here, herbs taste salty because salt water infiltrates the soil during high tides. So yes, they grow around Mazzorbo and Mazzorbetto and in the area of the northern Lagoon called L’orto del Doge – the Doge’s vegetable gardens around Lio Piccolo and Le Mesole.
I didn’t include the erba di barena – wild Lagoon herbs like salicornia in this chapter. They are available longer, also during summer and in early fall. Usually, they are not sold at the markets in Venice, but one must go foraging for herbs in the Lagoon, just like you can see in the video below.
Four restaurant tips to taste Lagoon herbs:
Il Ridotto. They even offer desserts made from Lagoon herbs and the special honey harvested in the Lagoon, miele di barena (we’ll be back with more stories on the Lagoon honey soon!).
Ristorante Gran Canal. They specialize in herb dishes using bruscandoli, and on their seasonal menu, now changing daily in spring, you can often find risotto ai bruscandoli.
Vecio Fritolin. Here we are, not far from the Rialto Market. In addition to being a traditional fritoler, which means you can still buy a take away Venetian style of fish and chips (mostly, fried fish and fried vegetables), you can taste all kinds of spring herbs, in salads or as toppings for polenta and in pasta dishes.
Ristorante Local. An experimental restaurant offering traditional dishes in modern disguise. They also have a daily changing menu and use spring herbs to enrich fish platters.