Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tasting Notes: Venice

The local population of Venice is shrinking. "We are now down to 59,500, it's slowing slightly as we get down to the 'zoccolo duro', the hard core", said Matteo Secchi, head of the protest group With millions of tourists flooding Venice each year to visit its immense art and architectural heritage, locals are fleeing for lack of affordable rents and services. To the casual visitor, it can be hard to get a sense of the living city.

This is where foodies have an advantage. Connecting with seasonal produce is one way of being in touch with local rhythms of farming and eating. In Venice, this connection is possible for two reasons. First, the agriculture of the Veneto is still characterized by market gardening. This labor intensive method allows for growing many more varieties of plants than industrial farming does. Particularities rather than consistency can be encouraged: cultivars that have a short season, or are more delicate, or are specific to a locality. (Here in the U.S., "heirloom gardening" is an attempt to revive this approach.) The second reason is that this bounty is readily available to Venetians at the Rialto market, right in the heart of town. This time last year, and other groups had an important victory: they succeeded in reversing plans to relocate the 700 year old market to the mainland.

If you are lucky enough to go to Venice in late March-early April, you will catch the short season of the "castraure", the first shoots of the artichoke. Before the full-grown artichokes begin to sprout, a tiny bud appears at the top of the plant. This is what is snipped off to become castraure -- so miniature that there is nothing to trim; so tender they can be eaten raw. In this delicate offering is held a concentrated bite (two at the most) of artichoke essence.

For such tiny morsels, castraure can be quite versatile. My first taste of it was at the esteemed restaurant, Osteria Da Fiore. Of the exquisite food we had there, the most exquisite was gnocchi stuffed with crab, served with braised castraure. Perhaps the gnocchi was intended to be the star, but from my first taste of the young artichokes, these were undoubtedly the main attraction, an unbelievable spring intensity leaping from their small tendrils. The crab and its juices were merely there to enhance the sweetness they yielded.

You don't have to go the most expensive restaurants in town to find castraure. I happened upon them again at one of those restaurants lining the Grand Canal near the Rialto bridge. The proprietor of the Terrazza Sommariva flagged us down as we were passing by, trying to lure us with offers of pizza. But when I inquired about castraure, sure enough, there they were on the menu as a special, this time paired with shrimp. The shrimp, by the way, were amongst the tenderest I have ever tasted. But the castraure blew me away. This time, they were shredded raw and lightly seasoned with olive oil, lemon, garlic, salt, and most importantly chives. This preparation brought out a completely different flavor than the one I had had the night before -- the slight stringency of the raw shoots given depth by the chives, then made to sparkle by the lemon.

Venice's food is sometimes criticized as being boring and limited. I disagree. Follow the market offerings and you will find chefs that are inspired and creative, and a cuisine that is very much alive.

Varieties of Artichoke at the Rialto Market (local and regional)
Venice, Italy

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda
And: thanks to Marcella Hazan, still my most reliable guide to Italian food.


Yuli said...

For some reason, some of those artichokes look like figs to me.

Anonymous said...

The food looks so fresh! What's your favorite restaurant in Venice? Share it on your besty list!

Lajules said...

This post made me terribly homesick... Castraure are a treasure of my land. I'm not even opening the link about criticism of Venice cuisine because it may ruin my day. I had my wedding lunch outside of Venice, with 17 courses all containing fish and/or seafood, and it was still just skimming the surface of Venice food. *rereads wedding menu, cries*

Thank you for posting this! xxx