February 29, 2012

Venice and Food


My sister Claire and her husband Alex were lucky enough to spend this past Christmas in Venice. Every year Alex’s family gets together for the holidays in an exotic locale. Since Claire joined the family they’ve gone to India, Syria and Rome – J and I happily got to tag along on that last trip for Christmas 2010.

They liked Rome so much that it was back to Italy this year. Claire has been to Venice before, but never for so long a stay, and they all had a fantastic time. (The photos of Venice in this post were taken by them.)


I feel that in a small way, I got to visit Venice too, through the pages of the wonderful book they gave J and I as a Christmas gift: Venice and Food.

Part artbook, part cookbook and part history book, Venice and Food is a fascinating and beautiful read. It’s written by an American woman, Sally Spector, who’s lived in Venice since the 1980s, and it was first published in 1998. There is an Italian version as well, and we’re not sure which book is the translation. Claire saw both of them in the store where she bought it and neither had translation credits. Perhaps the author wrote them both.


The book takes you through the history of Venice’s food culture, made up of sections of Venetians’ major food groups: Rice, Grain and Pasta, Polenta, Fish, Vegetables, Spices, and Sugar and Sweets. The book opens with an essay on Cicheti, which are Venetian appetizers or snacks, and another on how Venetians through history have accessed their fresh water. Through her writing on how the food of the Veneto region has been grown, raised, caught, made, and sold throughout history, the author tells the story of how Venice eats now and ate throughout the ages.

There are stories about how the fork came to Italy, how a winged lion became the symbol for Venice, and how the many guilds, or scuoli, for food vendors or producers in Venice were founded and their many regulations.


One thing that makes this book so special is the fact that it’s completely hand-lettered and illustrated by the author. It is rare to see such books these days. The drawings range from full 2-page scenes of Venetian street life, to different types of vegetables and shellfish, to replicas of historical machines and sculptures that have to do with food. The hand-lettering gives the book an intimate feel, as though you’re reading along in someone’s private journal. I think that’s what made me feel like I was really visiting Venice.


There are also nearly 50 recipes for authentic Venetian dishes. I haven’t tried any of them yet, and some are definitely a little too authentic to attempt here in Edmonton – like Cuttlefish Stewed in its Ink or Rice with Castrated Lamb – but several of them have caught my eye. I’d love to try the Pasta e Fasioi (Pasta and Bean Soup) and the Risi e Bisi (Rice and Peas), one of Venice’s most famous dishes.


Venice and Food would make a fantastic gift for anyone interested in food, culture, travel, or Italy, especially those who have visited or are planning to visit Venice. I definitely hope to go there myself one day, all the more after reading this.

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