A trip to Veneto, and a guide on making the perfect Polenta

NOTE: See more pics on my story about Veneto on Steller!

Veneto is a very interesting part of this beautiful country. Its architecture, landscape and traditions are absolutely unique. They are the only region in Italy currently fighting for independence (yes, you read that right) and its grapevine-laden countryside is overcast by the shady profile of the nearby mountains. Towns and cities are far from each other, and the land in between alternates sceneries of empty green fields and industrial areas, which are some of the largest of Italy. Tiny medieval villages top the hills, and the prevalently 1700-style architecture coexists with theirthousand-year-old castles. Things do not seem to be too modern or interesting, but, while Veneto is often overshadowed by its shining star Venice, many towns and cities are so worth the visit.

Vicenza - Stories of Veneto | Hortus Natural Cooking

I’ve been through Vicenza, which has one of the prettiest city centers I’ve seen. It is famous for the works of Palladio, an architect who saw his rise in the 1700, and gifted the city with the Basilica Palladiana, an architecturally stunning church. Its classic flair, and the fact that cars cannot drive through town, make this place a real pleasure to stroll through. Vicenza is quaint, elegant and majestic at the same time.

Vicenza - Stories of Veneto | Hortus Natural Cooking

 

We then visited some surrounding medieval villages and their castles: Bassano del Grappa, Asolo, and Marostica. These tiny places are true gems, full of character and nice places to stop for drinking or eating.

Bassano - Stories of Veneto | Hortus Natural Cooking

 

Bassano - Stories of Veneto | Hortus Natural Cooking

The most beautiful part, though, was stopping in Soave. If you are a wine connoisseur, you probably know this name already. Soave is known for its wine production, and the castle is surrounded by lush vineyards that produce some of the most gorgeous wines in the world.
We stopped for a drink at Enoteca Il Drago, and it really felt like sitting on the terrace of an old castle, as we watched people swarm out of the church and crowd the sun-bathed village. Everyone was looking for a seat to enjoy a leisurely sunday aperitivo, which is a strong tradition here, before heading to lunch.

Soave - Stories of Veneto | Hortus Natural Cooking

Soave - Stories of Veneto | Hortus Natural Cooking

Unfortunately, when we got to Treviso it was raining like crazy, so we did not get to tour much. But it is a truly stunning city, full of streams and tiny alleys, much resembling Venice in style and architecture.

Overall, we had a great time. We ate well, and most of all we drank well, and all the people were so bright and friendly! I will let the pictures speak for themselves, but here are some facts that personally struck me. It is amazing to be an Italian tourist in Italy!

FUN FACTS & PERSONAL CONSIDERATIONS

1. WHERE IS THE BREAD?
I am not a big bread eater, but a thing I consider to be wonderful is seeing how bread changes in the various parts of the country. Florence and its panini bottegas, or bread in Puglia – probably the best in the world, or focaccia in rome…well, all around Veneto, families seemed to care very little about the bread. I spent time in 3 different households, and all I saw were these sad, supermarket white bread rolls. On the other hand, they served polenta with dinner. Unsurprisingly so, since it is so good in Veneto.

2. WHERE IS THE OLIVE OIL?!
Extra virgin olive oil up there is BLAND. I love the strong, piquant oil from southern Italy or the intensely flavorful Tuscan kind, so I was utterly surprised when I tried the olive oil produced in Garda, known for being very light and delicate. The friend I was staying with even said that his dad prefers vegetable oil, which is an absolutely preposterous thing to say throughout all of Italy. What with the pastures and large green spaces, it is easy to see how Veneto is a place that traditionally relied on butter rather than EVOO.

3. BUT SERIOUSLY…WHERE ARE THE VEGGIES?!
As I do when I travel, especially if I’m only away for 2-3 days, I let go of the vegetarian regimen while trying my best to keep things healthy. I had a chance to try some incredible local foods, but I did look for vegetarian options, and I found close to none. Veneto’s traditional cuisine is definitely not heavy on vegetables, and, as cheeses and most red meats make me sick, by the second day I was like ‘Hey, LOOK. I need a damn SALAD, ok?’ fish dishes and game meats are quite the thing here.
NOTE: As someone in the comments below pointed out though, I should not forget to mention the fact that most families I saw had a vegetable garden, so I noticed the lack of vegetables in traditional restaurants, not in family meals. Veneto is also famous for many kinds of fruits and vegetables, grapes aside.

4. ALCOHOL. AND *MORE* ALCOHOL.
I do not drink alcohol, but, even though all italians enjoy their glass of wine, I have to say that people from Veneto are real pros at drinking. Unsurprisingly so, since this is the land where some of the best wine in the world is produced, and where grappa, a liquor distilled from grapes, was born. The small town of Marostica had a *huge* shop entirely dedicated to flavored grappas, and one night, once dinner was over, the hosts pulled out a selection of liquors, including limoncello, liquorice liquor, blueberry grappa, plain grappa, and a couple Amari to have with coffee. Still, I’m not saying it in a way like ‘everyone is a drunkard’, absolutely not. People really seem to be able to enjoy a small glass, without too many worries. A shop in Marostica, which is known for its cherries, had some incredible cherry grappa for us to try.

5. SPECIFICALLY, WINE. AND *MORE* WINE.
Thank God that, in spite of my love for wine, I can only have 2-3 sips before my body starts to complain. I love trying new wines and understanding the flavors, and this trip was a great chance: in just 3 days, I tasted at least 6-7 different kind of wines, all of them the best I’ve ever had. unfortunately, a couple were locally produced in small batch and came without a label, but I tried Durello della Valpolicella, Recioto di Soave and the best of them all, Soave Superiore.

6. FOG AND HILLS
The landscape is so different from what I’ve seen so far. Although all of central Italy tends be quite similar, The climate and environment up north are quite unique. It is foggy, very green, and it tends to be chilly even in the summer at night, because of the mountains. There is this contrast of large, beautiful vineyards and industrial areas.

7. MAKING SENSE OF THE LOCAL DIALECT
Everyone here speaks in dialect! Even though it happens all throughout Italy, not everywhere young people know and speak the local slang. Luckily, it is not amongst the most difficult to understand, and it was super cool to be fully immersed in this funny language.

Treviso - Stories of Veneto | Hortus Natural Cooking

 

Bassano - Stories of Veneto | Hortus Natural Cooking

 

PLACES TO EAT & DRINK
Veneto seems more focused on a traditional style of eating, full of osterias and trattorias. I had some really amazing food, and, even though the list here is short, these are all places Where you know you’ll have a good time:

VICENZA & SURROUNDINGS

Al Ritrovo
Nice place that serve aperitivo too and has outdoor seating right on the lovely church square. Their special dish is Saòr (see the recipe below!).

L’Orso a Pieve (Pieve Belvicino)
A newly opened place, which uses local ingredients to make fancy (and veggie) burgers!

Caffè Danieli (Bassano del Grappa)
We only stopped here for some coffee. Although it is nothing amazing, the interiors are stunning and it is worth stopping here just to enjoy the decor. Coffee was very good, if a tad pricey.

Bottega Baggio (Bassano del Grappa)
A wonderful local products shop that I urge you to visit if you’re ever in the area. They offer a tasting of their products and have an underground, well stocked wine cellar.

Il Gelataio
A great ice cream place in the city. Venchi is also a very good ice cream place if you like chocolate ice cream, but it is one of those places where you get less gelato than you should for your money.

SOAVE

Trattoria alla Rocca
Guys. This place has a selection of 200 different sauces for dressing you pasta! Go here for two of the local delicacy: bigoli, a thick, long cut of pasta, and gargatti, a hand made kind of macaroni-shaped pasta.

Enoteca il Drago
A lovely wine shop where you can leisurely sip a glass of wine under the portico, or have a full meal. It is quite romantic – it feels like sitting right inside a castle!

Osteria La Scala
A great, super traditional place where you can enjoy all the classic foods from Veneto. Non-vegetarian options include Baccalà mantecato and duck or boar ragù.

VEGETARIAN & VEGAN OPTIONS
Unfortunately, I had a really hard time finding vegetarian options wherever I went. What I love most about the area of Italy where I live, is its  incredibly modern flair combined with the beauty of our countryside. It is easy to find vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and most places offer Veg-friendly and gluten-free options. This is still not the case in many parts of Italy, so all I can do is leave you with this link, which lists all the vegetarian places around Veneto.

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POLENTA: A GUIDE

Polenta has always been a common dish amongst farmers from northern Italy and the alps. It is a very coarse flour which derives from corn, although in some parts of the north, especially Trentino, it can be mixed with buckwheat. Traditionally, it was cooked in a large copper pot over the fire of a chimney, and stirred with a long wooden sort of pestle called cannella. Farmers said that polenta was ready once the cannella could stand on its own in the pot.
Several ways of cooking polenta developed around the alps: Polenta Taragna is made with cheese and buckwheat flour; Polenta concia, or fat polenta, is made by adding butter and cheeses like fontina or toma; or white polenta, mostly prepared around Venice and Treviso with a special kind of white corn. This is just to name a few. Polenta is also very common throughout Tuscany, Le Marche and Emilia Romagna, where it is usually served with white or tomato based ragús.
The best quality polenta has specks of uneven color, or some black grains in between, and is really gritty.

Here are three ways you can prepare polenta:

CREAMY: Creamy polenta is usually ladled into individual bowls, it is often cooked with cheeses or dairy and, if particularly dairy-dense, it is eaten on its own as a one bowl meal. If it is only cooked with water or less dairy, it is meant to be served with some sort of sauce, like braises or ragùs, usually made with game. Two vegetarian/healthy options are creamy stewed beans, or a tomato & chickpea sauce (You’ll see both at some point!).

REGULAR: Regular polenta is just cooked plain with water and salt, it is left to harden and can be either eaten like creamy polenta, or sliced, toasted and topped with anything. Traditionally, especially in Emilia Romagna and Tuscany, polenta was spooned over a wooden board, left to set there, and cut with a cotton wire.

GRILLED: You can roast, toast, pan-fry or grill your polenta slices, and serve it with stews instead of bread. The results are wonderful, as polenta slices remain creamy and moist on the inside, and make a crispy, tasty golden crust on the outside. It is a great gluten-free alternative to bread!

NOTE: This one below is just a general guide, but make sure you read the instructions on the package (if the package comes with instructions). Do not panic if it seems to thicken too quickly, that’s how it behaves! If you’d like it looser, just add more water at the beginning.

How to make Polenta | Hortus Natural Cooking

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Basic Polenta
(Serves 4 generously, or 6 as an accompaniment)

1 1/2 cup Polenta
2l (4 cups) liquid (water, or half water and half milk)*
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, or butter
1 tbsp coarse salt, or a teaspoon fine salt

*To make it looser, use just one cup of polenta, or add another scant cup of water.
EXTRA: Parmigiano or Grana, to finish

Bring your liquid to a boil, add salt, then reduce to a simmer. Slowly pour in the polenta, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Stir well to make it smooth, and keep whisking until the polenta turns creamy, about 5 minutes. Whisk in a tablespoon of your fat of choice. From this point on, you will have to whisk or stir it with a wooden spoon every 5 minutes or so. It will likely stick, but once it starts to come off the bottom you won’t have to worry about it sticking anymore.
Cook for as long as it is indicated in the package – it should take about 40 minutes total. You will know it is ready when it turns really creamy and loses most of its gritty consistency.
Turn off the heat, and finish with the rest of the fat and, if you like, some grated good quality italian aged cheese.
If you decided to make it looser, serve in individual bowls and spoon over the sauce of choice. Otherwise, transfer it to a bowl or a cutting board, and let it cool slightly to let it harden. Serve it sliced. You can make polenta bruschetta by toasting/grilling/broiling the slices. Serve it with any topping, or with some simple truffle oil.

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Polenta Bruschetta with Sweet&Sour Smothered Onions
(Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer)

This recipe uses onions cooked in a way called ‘Saór’. This word means ‘tasty’ in venetian dialect, and how appropriate it is! It is also accurate that it recalls the word ‘sour’, as the onions are cooked in sugar and vinegar. I used Muscovado sugar to avoid the white stuff.
Traditionally, these onions are meant to accompany fried fish or sardines, but they are super tasty on top of this grilled polenta bruschetta. I mean, it’s browned onions – can’t go wrong now, can you?

250g Polenta
1l Water
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 heaping tsp coarse salt, or a scant tsp fine salt
An extra tbsp olive oil, for grilling

3 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
2 medium white or yellow onions
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 tbsp Muscovado sugar
A handful of pine nuts and a handful of raisins
A pinch of salt
A good sprinkling of freshly grated pepper

Cook the polenta as per the instructions of the basic recipe.
In the meantime, prepare the onions: Peel them and slice them very finely, possibly with a mandoline. Add them along with the olive oil to a pan, and cook on medium, stirring often, until theys tart to soften, about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper, and stir well, letting them cook for 5 more minutes.
Add the sugar and vinegar, stir well to let the sugar dissolve. From this point on, you will need to let the onions cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until darkened and creamy. Stir them every 5-10 minutes, adding splashes of water to avoid sticking or burning.
Add the pine nuts and raisins 5 minutes before they finish cooking.

To make polenta bruschetta, wait for the polenta to be fully set and slice it into 1cm slices, or less than half an inch. Heat a grill (or a nonstick pan) on very high heat, brush the polenta slices with some olive oil and grill until golden, or until you see dark ridges on each side. Spoon the onions on top, and enjoy with some good wine!

Polenta Bruschetta with Sweet and Sour Onions | Hortus Natural Cooking

There are still a couple of places I’d like to talk about, but I’ll cover that later, when Radicchio is in season!

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