On 21 November, Venice celebrates la salute – health. Or rather, health regained after a severe bout of the bubonic plague which lasted seventeen months in 1630-31.
Times were difficult for Venice in the year 1630, a year after a war during which Venice lost and regained a few territories in the Aegean Sea. In early May 1630, as if it hadn’t been enough, the black death hit the territories of the Republic on the Mainland and finally entered the Lagoon.
As a consequence of the epidemic, Venice was completely isolated from the rest of the world. Fresh fruit and vegetables were scarce to non-existent as time went by. Venetians mostly ate smoked mutton brought in from Dalmatia and the mountains of Albania on the trabacolo boats. This dish is called castradina – dried mutton smoked with herbs, and during the week before and after the Remembrance you can still buy it in Venice. So our town celebrates a Thanksgiving Feast in her own tradition.
All that knowledge the Serenissima had accumulated about health came in so useful during those hard 17 months when Venice practically ceased to work and do trade as usually. To keep the inhabitants healthy, they learned to enrich what little they had left with the ubiquitous herbs and spices growing in town. With the onset of winter, they used verza – cabbage varieties – white, green and blue ones to enrich their mutton dishes.
Winter herb bouquets were added to food. Herbs were also smoked and put into the protective mask physicians wore when visiting patients. The herbs were placed inside the “long nose” of the white mask existing to this day in Venice, just like it was worn by the plague doctor, il medico della peste.
A very savvy diet that one could still use in emergency situations today. Venetians, almost self-sufficient 400 years ago, relied on enriching their food with produce from the fields and vegetable plots in the Lagoon and the Mainland. That wasn’t possible for those 17 months when the plague killed more than 600,000 people living on the Mainland surrounding Venice. So they had to create a special diet to prevent contagion or help survive patients.
You can imagine how the Venetian know-how on aromatics came in useful during the crisis. Herbs and spices contain many vitamins and minerals that sustain your immune system, and for a short time they can substitute fresh produce.
The healthy population ate castradina e verza (cabbage and mutton) or riso in cavroman (rice and mutton flavored with herbs (rosemary and thyme), laurel, chili, pepper and cloves. Venetians used all herbs available in town to smoke their homes and fight off germs, in particular rosemary and thymes but also pines.
During the day, Venetians were called upon to remain in their homes but at night, the Government asked them to go for a walk in the “invigorating night air”. Venetian doctors were convinced that the air at night would strengthen the inhabitants of the isolated city. So that was the time of the famous “summer night parties”, when Venetians celebrated in the streets at night during the most dire time of history. Do you know what effect it had? The contagion rate went down sharply and inexplicably.
While elsewhere in Italy many stretches of land lost all their inhabitants, more than sixty per cent of the population trapped in the Lagoon did survive in a time when no antibiotics or other chemical remedies were available. There were just herbs and spices, and Venetian doctors were able to save more than half of those fallen ill with plague.
The patients, being treated in hospitals away from town on the Lazareto islands in the Lagoon, ate warm chicken or turkey soup enriched with cloves, pepper, cinnamon and garden herbs like cress and parsley. They drank warm almond milk flavored with honey and dried figs to regain strength. They also ate orzo dolse e late de mandoa to get stronger, which is barley softened in warm almond milk and sweetened with cane sugar. By the way, sugar was considered a remedy and spice during those times.
We mustn’t forget acqua spezià, a natural and potent virus-killing drink made from warm water, cinnamon, pepper, cardamom and a hint of aceto (vinegar). Vinegar was used as a strong disinfectant, and Venetians also used it to disinfect their homes and even washed the walls and facades with vinegar water called acqua acidula.
When very weak, they ate spoonfuls of miele tiepido – warm honey flavored with pines or thyme. Look at what is sold at the stalls arranged next to the Basilica during the Feast. Venetian have always used honey to fight coughs, and these are a few varieties harvested in the colline (hilly region around Padua) – jars of honey flavored with pines, thyme, herbs and erica.
So you won’t be surprised that Venetians, who celebrated health regained EACH November 21 after the year 1630, used dried fruit to make syrups with. To prevent getting a cold during a foggy and wet November morning when practically all inhabitants and many people from the Lagoon and the mainland come together at the Basilica. Yes, Venetians are grateful for the victory of their city over the plague even 386 years afterwards.
When you come to Venice on 21 November, you still find these foods eaten in 1630. There’s also a Fiera della Salute – the Salute Fair, with food stalls arranged just behind the Basilica. Here you can taste warm drinks, syrups, nuts, almonds and pistachios. And caramei, caramelized fruit on sticks that you can see below. Venetians love caramelized apples which look very red as they are coated with honey and red food color to make them look beautiful for the occasion. Ancient remedies shown off in town.