I was up at 5:30 am every morning during the school summer holidays. By 5:45 am, you would find me laying the breakfast tables for our guests, desperately trying to “enrich” the scarce breakfast they were served at that time. It was the standard breakfast Venetians thought would be appreciated by tourists. Peach jam. Apricot jam. Fette biscottate. Two panini which tasted very much of flour, very white and empty inside. Fortunately, there was the coffee machine, which had been in use for thirty years and which still delivered delicious morning cappuccino making up it, though.
While I was searching the fridge for boilt eggs, local cheese and orange juice to liven up the breakfast tables a bit, I heard the first guests arrive in the breakfast room. Reaching for the Venetian dream almond cake – torta greca – my grandmother had made the evening before, she stopped me from cutting a few slices off for the guests adding, that’s not the breakfast our guests expect to eat in Venice. Torta greca was a secret family recipe handed down in our family from one generation to the next, based on the ancient recipes that once had made Venice so famous for luxurious cuisine, grandfather told me.
Our guests looked so happy and satisfied to be able to spend a week in Venice. As I was the only person speaking German in the family, they asked me a lot of questions about our town but contrary to other guests, they had a ready-made plan in mind where to go and “find the real Venice”. They invited me to join them which I did, full of anticipation. When they told me they wanted to spend the whole day inside the Doge’s Palace and to go up to the Campanile in the afternoon, I answered that it was fine for the morning, but that I had other ideas for them where to spend the afternoon. Someplace where it would be cool and where they could unwind before going for a brisk walk in the early evening. But no, they insisted and we spent the whole day in and around the Doge’s Palace.
As it was mid-July, you can imagine how hot the weather was. Only in the deep-lying parts of the Palazzo delle Prigioni (the prisons) did we get some relief from the parching sun and crowds – tourists coming in from the beaches around Venice completely filled up the Doge’s Palace. Not even the open windows on the east side of the Palace were of any help. I felt very dizzy and sat down on a visitor chair in the corner of an airless corridor while my guests were joining the crowds to take their guided tour.
After more than two hours, the tour was over. Feeling hungry, I suggested to our group to eat at a friend’s restaurant nearby in a cool shady garden. A secret spot where not many tourists would stop. I knew they made delicious summer fruit cakes which I thought our visitors would love … but it was no again, my guests insisted on eating spaghetti with tomato sauce in a fast-food a few steps away from the Piazza.
After a week of eating lasagne and spaghetti al pomodoro every day for lunch somewhere under the hot sun in Venice, they sounded rather disappointed of Venetian cuisine, dubbing it “dull and uninventive”. Was it because they seemd to be afraid to venture further and eat real Venetian cuisine, or because this offer was lacking in the first place in town ? And what did the average visitor see of Venice, how we lived and where we spent most of our time? True, visiting Piazza San Marco is a must for every visitor but it’s not where we live and most of us don’t work here. But even while visiting the Piazza, our visitors never seemed to take time to stop and really take in and understand what they were doing. They were rushing around Venice, squeezing in shops and buying China-made souvenirs.
Only on their last day in Venice, when we took the vaporetto along the Grand Canal to reach the train station did they notice a lush garden on the right. They stated asking questions and were really surprised that Venice had so many more jewels to show. On that day I made up my mind to go searching for ways to show visitors the real Venice but soon found out during my studies at the university that much of it was forgotten. Stored away in libraries or in the memories of our grandparents. Sometime in the 1990s I couldn’t help noticing how different the impressions were that locals and visitors have of Venice. How different the food was offered to tourists (all-Italian) in restaurants and the food Venetian families cooked. Tourists didn’t even get the idea of trying risotto ai bruscandoli for example, and torta greca was completely unknown as well :-)
By 2005, a real change had taken place. Beautiful guidebooks and local tours started showing off the hidden Venice, and many visitors are taking a keen interest in discovering the other Venice and its culinary traditions. For a few years now, restaurants in Venice offer ancient recipes and even spice dishes (for example, my friends at Bistrot de Venise certainly do …). There’s a lot to be told, so many valuable recipes stories to be uncovered. There are many unknown treasures telling about a forgotten Venice, and that’s what Lina and I would like to share with you in our La Venessiana Project.
PS – The breakfast offer at the little hotel has completely changed and guests love it :-) Would you like to read more about Torta Greca and discover the real Venetian breakfast ? Take a look at our new Food Section “Roses and Spices” here !