Venice, the capital of Veneto, is an island city that is constructed on over 100 islands in a sheltered lagoon on the North Eastern coast of Italy. Venice rapidly became a powerful city as a result of it’s merchant traders and its strategic location which enabled it to become a crucial ‘middle man’ between the Middle East and Europe. Venice is one of the most visited cities by tourists and expats.
Venice has a distinct history to the rest of Italy and was traditionally seen as a separate entity in its own right. Consequently, Venetians developed their own unique dialect, traditions, culture and, of course, cuisine.
Venetian recipes are not only very different to Southern Italy but it’s also unlike the rest of Northern Italy’s cuisine which has a much more Germanic influence. One of the most important factors that makes Venetian cuisine so distinctive are the unique ingredients that are used to create the city’s famous dishes.
A Brief Overview Of Venetian Cuisine.
The cuisine of Venice can be roughly divided in three categories; each of which is sourced from a different geographical part of the region. The three categories include the coastal areas, the mountains and the lower plains. Each geographical location is used to source special ingredients, all of which are important to Venetian cuisine.
Seafood is one Venetian cuisine’s most distinctive elements and in many coastal communities near the lagoon, or the ‘Laguna Veneta’, you’ll find an abundance of seafood on every restaurant menu. Venetians have been able to source fresh seafood, both from the lagoons and open ocean, which has become a central ingredient in the culinary tradition of the city.
Veneto also grows small, sweet corn in its plains which is used to make polenta, one of the most common Venetian dishes. For many generations polenta was the primary staple food for the poorer classes. Polenta is made by grinding the corn into a flour. This is then cooked and allowed to set once it’s creamy and thick. The cooked polenta resembles a pudding and is sliced before being served.
Another mainstay of Venetian cooking is game and meat that is hunted or farmed in the plains and the more mountainous parts of the province. Meat dishes are usually grilled and served with polenta, vegetables or risotto. The mountain sourced ingredients includes game meat but it also incorporates cheeses, mushrooms and even some Austrian inspired dishes such as strudel and canederli.
Rice also plays a vital role in Venetian cooking with risotto being one of the best known dishes of the region. Rice is cooked in combination with a huge range of other ingredients including mushrooms, vegetables, seafood or meat.
Of course, Venice makes its own range of pastas which include bigoli, gnocchi, ravioli and tortelli. Pasta is often stuffed with meats, cheese or vegetables and served with a traditional meat sauce known as ‘ragu’.
Modern Venetian Cuisine.
While Venetians still value their traditions, modern cuisine is often a fusion of classic Venetian ingredients and dishes that take inspiration from Mediterranean cooking as well as other parts of Italy.
However, when you’re in Venice you’ll still notice the prominence of seafood, risotto and traditional soups on restaurant menus even if chefs are branching out and incorporating more fusion dishes into their professional repertoire of recipes.
What Does It Take To Create A Full Venetian Meal?
If you want to experience a full Venetian meal then it will traditionally include the following courses:
- Aperitivo. This is a small alcoholic beverage that is consumed before a meal starts to help to stimulate your appetite. Traditionally an aperitivo is bitter and dry instead of sweet.
- Antipasto. A light appetizer that incorporates small bites of seafood or cured hams.
- Secondo. This is a dish that will usually consist of fish or meat.
- Contorno. This is served as a side dish with the Secondo and consists of vegetables, often grilled.
- Insalata. A salad dish that is served with olive oil or balsamic vinegar.
- Formaggi e Frutta. A dish that includes a selection of seasonal fruits and cheeses.
- Dolce. A sweet dessert or gelato.
- Caffe. Coffee is served after the meal to relax. Traditionally the coffee should not contain milk.
- Digestivo. A final alcoholic beverage that helps you to digest the meal.
The Influence Of The Sea And Salt In Venetian Cuisine.
One of the most prominent features of Venetian cuisine is the influence of the sea. This is because of Venice’s geographical location as an island and the easy access to a wide range of seafood from the lagoon and the sea around it. Fresh seafood is caught and sold in markets, such as the famous Rialto market, and finds its way onto the plates of locals and tourists alike.
Venetian seafood is eaten in a few different ways. It’s either eaten raw, fried, baked or cured with salt. One of Venice’s best known seafood dishes is Baccala, a salted or dried cod that is either eaten alone or as an element in a larger dish. Baccala is traditionally seasoned with garlic and parsley or made into a creamy puree that is spread on bread.
Salting and curing fish is a distinctive Venetian tradition and is very rare in other parts of Italy. This is largely because Venice was the first place to cultivate salt which was sold by its merchants for very high prices.
Venetian salt was used in the Middle East and throughout Europe to preserve food and so it was an extremely valuable commodity. The thriving salt trade helped Venice to become one of the richest and most powerful city states in Italy and so it’s not surprising that salting fish is still popular among its inhabitants.
In fact, it was partly the wealth from Venice’s monopoly on the salt trade that allowed the city state to buy high quality ingredients from the surrounding regions. This included meat from the plains and mountains of Veneto, aubergines from the Mediterranean, spices from Arabic countries and even tomatoes and corn from the Americas.
The Role Of Rice In Venetian Cuisine.
As a result of Venice’s booming trade in salt and other commodities, the city was able to purchase ingredients that were extremely rare in other parts of Italy and Europe. One of the best examples of this was rice which was originally introduced to Venice from the Arabic world in the Middle Ages. However, as a major port city Venetians were also in contact with Asian traders who brought rice with them to sell to the city’s merchants.
As a result of its position as a dominant trading center, rice became one the main staples in Venice; which is very different to the rest of Italy where the primary source of carbohydrates is bread and pasta. In fact, in Venice, there are more than 40 popular dishes that use rice as a major ingredient!
The best known Venetian rice dish is risotto which can be cooked with a wide range of other ingredients but is always served in a rich creamy consistency. Risotto is often cooked with meats, seafood, vegetables and may contain white white, butter, onion and Parmigiano-Reggiano for extra flavoring. Another popular Venetian dish that uses rice is ‘Risi e Figandini’, which means ‘rice and livers’. This dish is made with chicken livers that are seasoned and served with rice.
Artisan Venetian Cuisine.
Venice, just like other Italian cities, has created a wide range of unique local techniques and methods of making their food. Highly specialized local food items in Venice include cheeses, varieties of pasta and cured meats; as well as the use of salted fish.
One of Venice’s most distinctive pastas is ‘Bigoli’. This is similar in shape to spaghetti but it’s much thicker. It is, unlike spaghetti and other Italian pastas, made using buckwheat and duck eggs instead of the usual chicken eggs and wheat. Bigoli pasta is used in many Venetian dishes and is just one of the city state’s unique offerings.
Another distinctive Venetian product is Pecorino Veneto which is a cheese that is made from sheep’s milk. The cheese is very sweet and it is often hard to buy authentic Pecorino Veneto outside of the province.
Venetian cuisine is highly respected by other Italians as well as visitors from overseas. The unusual history of Venice as an isolated city state that relied primarily on its trading port has created a whole range of distinct recipes and culinary traditions.
As a result, no culinary trip to Italy would be complete with experiencing the amazing variety of local specialities in Venice.
Explore Authentic Venetian Cuisine With A Local Guide.
The city’s markets are bursting with fresh local ingredients that you can use to cook truly authentic Venetian cuisine but it’s not always easy to find your way around. Therefore, if you’re visiting Venice then it can be both educational and fun to take a guided food tour with a local expert.
For instance, you can join a private tour of the Venetian markets and then take part in a cooking class with your guide.
Alternatively, you can join a local Venetian for a half day cooking class. The chef, Lorenzo, will show you all the inside secrets of making genuine Venetian pasta. The 3 hour class can accommodate up to 50 people and includes free white wine and Prosecco!
Venetian Cooking – A Unique Cultural Treasure.
Venetian cuisine has been shaped by the city’s unusual history and prominent position as a major international trading port. This gave Venice access to rare and exotic ingredients as well as contributing to the city state’s impressive wealth.
Venetians are also fiercely proud of their heritage and have jealously guarded their unique culinary traditions. This means that if you’re visiting the city you’ll be able to sample some of the finest seafood, cured meats, risotto dishes and desserts in all of Italy!