A Q & A with Emiko Davies
Plus three recipes for Venetian cicchetti from her latest cookbook
The last time I was in Venice was in March 2008, when my husband and I took our kids. Since then, I haven’t really thought about going back, for the same reason that many people avoid it these days: it’s overrun with loathsome gigantic cruise ships that barge into a delicate ecosystem that was never meant to contain them, only to disgorge thousands upon thousands of day trippers into a delicate infrastructure that was never meant to hold them.
But food writer and photographer Emiko Davies has me second-guessing my self-imposed ban. Her latest book, Cinnamon and Salt, is a culinary love letter to La Serenissima. It’s a cookbook—the subtitle is ‘Cicchetti in Venice; Small Bites from the Lagoon City,’ but it’s also a book that you want to sit down and read. Davies delves into the city’s culinary history and traces the arrival of essential ingredients such as spices, baccalà, rice, and corn (polenta). She explores Venice’s glorious past as Europe’s most important trading port, a position that attracted merchants, bankers, diplomats, crusaders, and other migrants from around the world. The city’s multicultural character and its peculiar topography (a labyrinth of narrow streets and canals traversed on foot) influenced what and how its people ate and drank, and ultimately gave rise to the unique tradition of cicchetti, which continues today.
If you are not familiar with cicchetti, think of them as appetizers or hors d’oeuvres—small enough to be eaten in a couple of bites while standing and invariably washed down with a spritz or an ombra, a small rounded glass of wine. The variety of cicchetti is wide and includes seafood such as whipped salt cod (baccalà) served on fried polenta, batter-fried calamari, and sarde in saor—sardines marinated in a sweet-sour vinegar sauce. Other typical cicchetti: small, generously stuffed sandwiches (tramezzini); selections of cheese and salumi; and hard-boiled egg halves garnished with piquant toppings. There are many more in Davies’ book. It’s an enticing reminder that there is much more to Venice than that single, overtrodden, overcrowded, beaten path that takes you from St. Mark’s Square to the Rialto Bridge.
Davies, who is Australian and Japanese, has lived in Italy since 2005 and is based outside of Florence. But she has been traveling to Venice for many years. We spoke a few weeks ago on Zoom. Here’s an edited (for time/space/clarity) transcript, followed by three stellar recipes from her book.
Buona Domenica: Most people who visit Venice come either via cruise ship (alas) or bus tour. Your introduction to Venice was as an intern restoring water-damaged manuscripts from the Armenian monastery museum, yes? How do you think that influenced the way you view the city?
Emiko Davies: That was the first time that I actually spent weeks at a time in Venice. I had been on many trips beforehand, usually to visit the Venice Biennale, I was really—I still am—a huge fan of the biennale. When I was studying in Venice, we spent four weeks on the island of San Lazzaro, which is an amazing little monastery. It’s an Armenian monastery, and we were five students studying restoration of works on paper. I slept there at the monastery on the island, and during the days we would be working mostly on etchings and 19th Century photographs. It was a very rich experience. But one of the things I really loved about that was sleeping on an island in the lagoon, and whenever I wanted to go into Venice it was just a 15-minute vaporetto ride to get into San Marco. After work I would just hop on the vaporetto and glide into San Marco and go running off to the nearest favorite cicchetti bar.
I think a big part of falling in love with Venice was that it was late October or November. There were more definite tourist seasons back then, and as soon as autumn came round the city emptied out and you’d have these amazing foggy days. I really loved that feeling of having Venice to yourself, especially going to Venice only in the evenings because I only had from 7:00 onwards, so seeing Venice without the day trippers and wandering Venice in the backstreets at night in this moody weather, it was very special, it was hard not to fall in love with Venice.
BD: In your introduction, you mention the uniqueness of Venetian cuisine—all the foreign ingredients reflecting the Republic’s wealth and strategic position as a trading center juxtaposed with the “excellent but humble” ingredients of the lagoon and surrounding countryside—softshell crab, tiny shrimp, artichokes. And then, the diversity of the population it attracted. It made me think of Sicily in that many cultures have left their imprint on that cuisine as well.
ED: That is so interesting. I can draw parallels between Venetian and Sicilian cuisine. They’re on opposite ends of the peninsula and they could not be more different, but when it comes to food, you can draw some similarities, some definite connections between the two places, being islands, being maritime, and having these influences from the east in particular. Nowadays, we all want local food and ingredients, but in Venice in the Middle Ages, what was most attractive and what everybody wanted wasn’t local. They wanted the most exotic, the most far-away thing you could get: all the different spices, all the new, different vegetables. Not all the vegetables in Italy come from Italy. The tomato is a one example. Corn as well, and obviously polenta is the backbone of the Veneto, that’s their staple. That comes from America. Everything passed through the Rialto market. It was the entry point for anything new and coming from outside of Europe.
There’s a fresco from Palazzo Grimani, which belonged to one of the important noble families in Venice. They have this one room that I absolutely love because the whole ceiling is frescoed in a depiction of all different fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, flowers, and birds so it’s really beautiful. But it’s especially interesting to see that in quite a central part of the fresco, there is this mais plant where you can see the cobs of corn. This was in the mid 1500s, so it was really shortly after corn would have been introduced to Europe. Apparently, the first bag of mais was sold in 1495 at the Rialto market, and so it would have been 40 to 50 years after that. Once Venetians understood what a staple corn could be, for polenta and for feeding people, and how the land around the Veneto was really actually quite perfect for growing it, it was planted everywhere.
So many things that we think of as very Italian, they all came from somewhere else; things like rice and eggplant and melons and even artichokes were introduced to Italy through this hub.
BD: Your book is titled “Cinnamon and Salt” for a reason. Can you tell us about the role of spices in Venetian cuisine?
ED: It was always assumed that spices were needed for survival, as a preservative, like salt or vinegar, and that they were used in copious amounts to cover up the flavor of spoiled food. But this argument has recently been debunked, and many historians agree that spices weren’t something that was thrown around everywhere; they were a luxury status symbol. Anybody who was anybody wanted to have the spices to show that they were of a certain class or had certain means. When you look at Renaissance cookbooks and you read the recipes with spices in them, you can see how they were used quite thoughtfully and carefully, not just thrown around in fistfuls. And in Venice I think that spices have always been appreciated because it was the center of the spice trade. Spices are really what made Venice so very wealthy. Spice vendors used to sell these little sachets called sacchetti Veneziani that had a very particular mix of spices. There was one for fish, another for meat. This is the other interesting thing: when we think of spices, a spice like cinnamon, we associate it with dessert or something sweet, but Venetians used spices—and still use them—with savory dishes, like you would in the East. Cinnamon was not just something you put in apple pie. It’s a spice that you would add to baccalà, or any sort of stew.
BD: Let’s talk about cicchetti, the savory little appetizers that are the focus of the book. You write that they are “a way of life in Venice,” an inexpensive way to socialize and grab a bite in a city that can be expensive; and also that they are reflective of a place in which most people get around on foot.
ED: I was just in Venice a few weeks ago and I kept getting stopped by people I know. You say hi and have a quick pat of the dog and then you go on, and that’s one of the really nice things about Venice. When you do a cicchetti crawl, let’s say, or you’re going from one place to another, from your home to work, and you’re stopping off for a little bite to eat, you always end up bumping into somebody you know, which you wouldn’t do if you were in cars. I just think that aspect of it being an entire city that gets around foot means that cicchetti culture just really suits that casual Venetian lifestyle so well.
BD: You also call cicchetti “reviving,” a description I really like.
ED: They are like a pick-me-up, especially the vinegary things. I always feel like those revive me. My Japanese grandmother used to tell me, when I was tired or when it was hot, that I should eat some pickles because the vinegar helps pick you up. It’s true.
Cicchetti were really developed by enterprising bàcari (cicchetti bar) owners who needed to make sure that they made enough money at the end of the week. Wine is really, really cheap in Venice, and this goes back centuries when there was not a lot of potable water, and wine was safer to drink than whatever water was being stored in wells. So these little glasses of wine, called ombre, are a couple of euro, and they used to be even cheaper. You’re also paying about 1 to 2 euro for a really nice cicchetto. What the bàcari were trying to do was to get people to drink as many glasses of wine as possible, and so if you’re serving salty things or spicy things, spicy in the sense of something like a really strong gorgonzola, then people are likely to drink more.
Another clever feature of cicchetti—I really like this idea—is serving things that are hard to swallow. Take a hard-boiled egg, which is one of my favorite cicchetti. I love the simplicity of a hard-boiled egg, but if you don’t have anything to wash it down with it’s quite hard to swallow. And the same with boiled potatoes, which I also love. Small potatoes that are simply boiled and seasoned with salt and garlic and olive oil. I love that it’s a simple cicchetto, this boiled potato with a little toothpick in it. But you really need some liquid to go with it.
What makes cicchetti quite unique to Venetian culture, and different from appetizers or tapas, is that it is something that thrives during the daytime. It’s not an evening thing. The bàcari open at eight in the morning, so really the time to be getting cicchetti at a traditional bàcaro is during the day. You don’t have to go in the morning if drinking wine at 8 a.m. sounds like it’s a bit too early, but I do think the best time to go is maybe late morning after the Rialto market. Even if you’re not cooking anything, just wander the market, soak it in, and then visit these classic bàcari that are all near the market. It’s where they were born originally, and it’s an opportunity to see a bit of daily Venetian life. When I was over at San Lazzaro Island and clocking off at 7:00, I would catch the vaporetto, it would arrive at Piazza San Marco at 7:15, and then I would race across the piazza and over the bridge to get to the Rialto area where you can find bàcari like Do Mori and Arco. They’re next to each other and they’re two of my favorite places to get cicchetti. The reason I was racing was because they would close at 7:30. I think maybe they’re open till 8 p.m. now, but the point is they open early and close early.
BD: What are your favorite cicchetti?
ED: I really love the ones that in the ‘50s and ‘60s became the really traditional, classic cicchetti; these humble, but filling and totally comforting and satisfying little bites to eat while you’re having your wine. For example, I just love the simplicity of the halved egg with an anchovy. For me, that is the perfect cicchetto. The traditional ones are becoming harder to find now because cicchetti are becoming more elaborate and more international in the sense that they’re more creative and decorative, colorful piles of things. There’s a place for both [the book contains recipes for both classic and modern] but the really traditional ones have a very special place in my heart. One of my Venetian friends loves gorgonzola on a crostino with an anchovy and so that ticks two boxes. You’ve got the spiciness and the saltiness; you’re definitely going to be ordering another two or three ombre.
BD: Finally, Italy recently announced it will begin charging a fee to day visitors as part of an effort to combat over-tourism. What advice would you give to people who want to visit Venice and experience something beyond the typical tourist visit?
ED: I’d say as much as possible to get out into the lagoon. Whether that’s just a trip on the vaporetto to Burano or Torcello or any of the other islands (maybe for a meal and a wander back to Cannaregio), or even a day trip out on a boat (there are some great options, I’d recommend Bragozzo Rosa dei Venti). The lagoon is really the heart and soul of Venice. Get to know it and you get to know Venice!
Readers: Have you been to Venice? What was your experience like?
RECIPE: Gamberi in Saor (Shrimp in Saor)
Marinating fried food in sweet-sour vinegar brine began as way of preserving ingredients, especially for long seafaring journeys. It is still a tradition in Venetian cuisine. The classic dish sarde in saor stars sardines marinated with onions, raisins, pine nuts and spices in a sweet-sour vinegar mixture. But the technique works well with other seafood, and even vegetables (Emiko has a recipe for radicchio in saor in her book). Since fresh sardines are not always easy to come by, I substituted shrimp; and since there is a pine nut allergy in my family, I used sliced almonds instead. Mound the shrimp, along with the tangle of onions, raisins, and nuts, onto crostini for cicchetti; or serve it at room temperature as part of an appetizing summer supper.(Adapted slightly from Cinnamon and Salt)
Makes 12 cicchetti
1/3 cup (50 g) sultanas (golden raisins)
1/4 cup (60 ml) dry white wine
12 large shrimp
Unbleached all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil, for frying
Fine sea salt
1 medium to large white onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
1/2 cup (125 ml) white wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed (or a pinch of ground coriander)
Pinch of ground cloves
About 1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons pine nuts or sliced almonds
12 slices fresh or toasted baguette, for serving
1. Soak the raisins in wine while you prepare the other components of the dish.
2. Coat the shrimp in flour and shallow-fry them in a skillet for 1 to 2 minutes per side over medium-high heat, until golden and crisp. Season with salt and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate.
3. Cook the onion gently in a frying pan with the olive oil just until it is soft and translucent, 10 to 15 minutes on low heat. Add the vinegar, the wine from the sultanas (set the sultanas aside), some freshly ground pepper, and the spices. Sprinkle in a little of the sugar (you may need less or more, depending on how sweet the onion is and your taste). Simmer gently for about 10 minutes, until the onion is tender but not mushy. Turn off the heat and stir in the sultanas.
4. Arrange the shrimp in a terrine or deep dish. Spoon the onions and sultanas over the shrimp, and sprinkle with the pine nuts or almonds. Pour any remaining vinegar sauce on top. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving. Remove from the fridge 1 hour before serving to take the chill off. For cicchetti, mound some of the onion-raisin mixture on slices of baguette and top each slice with a shrimp. Secure with toothpicks and arrange on a plate.
RECIPE: Uova Sode in Vari Modi
(hard-boiled eggs with toppings)
Hard-boiled egg halves are among the most popular cicchetti. They are easy to make and there’s really no limit to how you can garnish them. “Boiled eggs have an important place culturally and historically, too,” Emiko notes in her book, “being that they are so wonderfully portable and nutritious. They were particularly useful for travelers in a place like maritime Venice, for pilgrimages, or for those who worked long hours away from home.”
I’ve given instructions both for boiling and steaming eggs; steaming is my preferred method, as it seems to make them easier to peel neatly. Use slightly older eggs if you can; they are also easier to peel. (Adapted from Cinnamon and Salt.)
Makes 12 cicchetti
(little sandwiches with cream of pepper and grilled eggplant)
You may be familiar with tramezzini, those elegant triangles of white bread (crusts trimmed!) generously (but neatly) filled with egg salad or tuna and tomato or any number of other fillings. Think of francobolli (stamps) as mini-tramezzini, in which one square sandwich is cut into four small rectangles. Perfect cicchetti!
Note that you can grill the pepper and the eggplant at the same time. You may end up with leftover filling; y daughter used them to make herself a full-size sandwich for lunch.
(Slightly adapted from Cinnamon and Salt.)
Makes 12 cicchetti
What I’m Reading
A drought in northern Italy is killing the rice, via The Washington Post
The disappearing Po, by Tobias Jones, via The Guardian
Why Europe is becoming a heat wave hot spot, via The New York Times
The rise of Giorgia Meloni and the “post-Fascist” Fratelli d’Italia, via The New York Times
On the collapse of the Italian government, via The Washington Post
On the light side:
PICTURE ITALY: Venice, July 2020
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