Limited use of the kitchen

by Simone Sekers

foodprodtrav-VeniceFACING the chores of everyday life after returning from holiday is never easy, and when that holiday was ten days living in Venice it is doubly difficult. From sitting on our wisteria-hung balcony, watching the humming bird moths hover over the late flowers of a white petunia, as the sun sunk over what we had come to think of as our very own canal, we are back to showers and the odd late bee, and wet roads thronged with cars, instead of canals and boats.

We had a flat in the Cannaregio district, and, had we not had the landlady from hell, would have been able to take advantage of the market a traghetto’s ride across the Grand Canal. But we had been forbidden to use the oven (it was actually locked) and were rather inadequately supplied with pots and pans, on the express understanding that Odile considered cooking by her tenants as distinctly lower class. Pasta and salad were quite sufficient for the likes of us.

Of course we expanded on that, by making a risotto one night, and the traditional Jewish/Venetian dish of bigoli con salsa on another. Bigoli is a wholewheat pasta, to which you add the salsa of onions, anchovies and sardines – much more delicious than it sounds.

After that we removed all evidence, in case the fearsome Odile should sense, all the way from her home in Vienna, that we had transgressed. As it was she had also forbidden use of the dishwasher – dire warnings implied that we risked death, as although the dishwasher was there, it was not earthed. So anything too elaborate made washing up arduous, and anyway there wasn’t really enough crockery to go round if you wanted anything more than two courses.

Fortunately we were surrounded by restaurants which, although not gastronomically athletic, were very pleasant and friendly, so we ate out on most evenings. Lunches we ate at home, translucent slices of San Daniele ham bought from our favourite corner shop, a salad of enormous ox-heart tomatoes from one of the stalls selling the freshest fruit and veg; sometimes we had syrupy sweet persimmons, on the point of exploding with ripeness, sometimes the little black grapes tasting of wild strawberries, huge buttery golden pears, or mandarin oranges, green on the outside but juicy and aromatic inside. Cheeses we sampled one after another, but the most popular was the rich and creamy gorgonzola which went so well with the pears.

Bread is better in Venice than in Florence, we decided, as Florentine bread lacks salt, and the prosecco flowed from taps in the neighbourhood wine shops. A litre in an unlovely plastic bottle set you back by under three euros. To this we learnt to add, via some friends who entertained us to the sort of supper we longed to be able to cook ourselves, a good slug of bitters, such as Campari or Aperol – these cut the sweetness and the resulting spritz became our favourite drink.

We were not particularly seduced by the number of little bars selling cicchetti – the Venetian tapas. These are very fashionable among the English, but a stale slice of bread with a blob of salt cod paste on top seemed over-priced and unsatisfying. We preferred a proper plateful of sardines en soar – a posh kind of rollmop, or in our very favourite place, the octopus and celery salad – an inspired combination which I’m going to copy as soon as I can.

Luckily, the morning after we got back the monthly farmers’ market in Sherborne took place. No persimmons, but piles of crisp English apples for which I had secretly been yearning. No gorgonzola, but the Bartlett Brothers were offering their new Wootton White ewes’ milk cheese – a sort of feta. Their stall also had a new range of biscuit, called, simply, Crackers. Made from oats, or spelt, or polenta, or a multi-seeded flour, these are made in Maiden Bradley and are so good they made up for the salty Venetian rolls we had been used to. A vast brown crab turned our thoughts away from the fish stalls in Venice, where they are over-proud of those spider crabs which don’t begin to compare. We bought pheasant legs (a very good idea) to make into a casserole, only regretting we couldn’t splash out on a couple of handfuls of the fresh porcini mushrooms we had been offered in Venice.

We drove home, instead of taking a boat, and revelled in the fact that here we are allowed to use the oven and the dishwasher as much as we like. Odile may deter us from returning to her particular flat, but we will go back for another Venetian holiday eventually. In the meantime, it is good to be home