The mist and the lights transform Venice into a hazy, wet watercolor dream.
Over its deserted alleys, an atmosphere of charming mystery hangs over our heads, as the sound of our steps glides onto the water and bounces off the walls. The sun peeks out, and the walls and canals light up.
In this rare scenery which is Venice in January, I met Zaira.
Zaira is a daugher of venetian artists and an artist herself, and perfectly embodies the charm of her city. Her long, blonde hair lay on her shoulder, as she told me how her name was one of ancient Venetian descent, and prepared me for a long stroll through bridges and narrow dead-end alleys.
We walked, as I savored every word she uttered in her ever-so-slight, sweet Venetian accent, about legends and myths of an Esoteric, medieval city that she was used to pace daily since she was born.
Did you know that the Venetian half-face mask with the long, hunched nose was called the Plague’s Doctor? The long nose was stuffed with aromatic herbs, which were believed to keep them from getting infected with plague.
And did you know that the word ‘Ciao’ is also of Venetian origin? It comes from the Venetian word ’sciávo’, which means slave. This salutation was uttered as a way to state ‘I am a slave to you’, namely, ‘I am at your service’.
How many stories does this city hold?
“Too many to remember them all,’ says Zaira. ‘I grew up hearing stories about an unexpected, esoteric, magical Venice from my dad.’
We take an unexpected turn and we find ourselves in the Jewish Ghetto. Two kids wearing hamakas are playing under the porticos, while their dark-coated fathers linger before the sinagogue, chattering in a peculiar mix of Venetian and Yiddish. There is smell of spices, artichokes, Ashkenazi cooking, and guitars playing Jewish Gypsy music resonates through the porticos. Suddenly the rest of the world seems cut off, as we lonesome travelers feel like sweetly slipping deep into a fairy tale-ish scenario.
‘Did you know that the word ‘ghetto’ originated in Venice?’ Said to me Zaira’s father, who is an artist and a passionate connoisseur of his own city.
‘It comes from the Venetian dialect word ‘geto’, pronounced as ‘gheto’ by the Ashkenazi Jews, which means, ’to cast’, because the area was originally an iron foundry. As the Jews moved in, it became the Giudecca Sestriere.’
I asked wether there would be markets where to look for antiques or old books, dishware or other paraphernalia. My hope was hunt down some local recipes and legends. Unfortunately, such markets are rare or overly expensive – like most things around town nowadays.
‘Here you go,’ said Dorina, Zaira’s mother, as she handed me a tiny book with yellowish pages and etched illustrations.
‘This is a very old book of Venetian recipes – some are even written in dialect. See if you can find anything interesting.’
And, as I leafed through that marvel of a book, many interesting things I found. Amongst many typical dishes, risottos, and this risotto in particular, resonated with me the most: I found fennel risotto to be so peculiar! It piqued my interest so that I could not help but choose it as the perfect recipe to go with the dreamy photos of the most enchanting corner of the world I have ever had the luck to set foot in.
This risotto is simple, easy and quick to prepare, it feels homey and, at least from my point of view, tastes of olden times, of those good Italian recipes that need no fancy ingredients.
I think the dairy (butter and cheese) really make this risotto, but if you want a vegan version, use olive oil alone for stir-frying, and use some nutritional yeast to taste to mimic the cheese.
A risotto will not really turn out creamy with brown rice (hence why this is an every-now-and-then dish for me) but you will still have pretty good result with brown Italian rice and the cheese will still make things quite creamy. Enjoy, if you want/can, with a nice dry white wine (or one that is not too sweet).
For a more thorough guide on how to make risotto and the varieties of risotto rice, read this post.
Here is the recipe, with a big thanks to Zaira, Dorina, and Luciano.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1½ tablespoons butter
- ½ a small onion, finely chopped
- 2 medium shallots, finely chopped
- 200 g (about half a medium) fennel, finely chopped
- A handful fennel tops, finely minced
- 170 g risotto rice, like Arborio or Carnaroli (brown rice is good too, see instructions below)
- Pinch nutmeg
- Salt as needed
- 2 pinches pepper
- About 2 cups good vegetable stock
- ½ a medium fennel, finely sliced
- 1 small onion, finely sliced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Grated cheese, like Parmigiano or Grana
- Toasted pine nuts
- A little grated orange zest
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Add the olive oil, butter, onion and shallots to a casserole, and let them sweat, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Add the fennel and fennel tops, stir and cook for 5 more minutes.
- Add the rice and stir to toast it for a minute. When it starts to release the starch, add salt (1/2 to 1 teaspoon, depending on the stock you are using), pepper and nutmeg, stir well, and add the stock one ladleful at a time. Once the risotto absorbs all the stock, add another. Continue until the rice turns creamy and luscious, 15 to 20 minutes depending on the kind of rice you are using (check the package). You can also make it 'all'onda', which is soupy risotto, by just adding more stock when the rice is done. Be careful not to overcook the rice, or it will turn mushy.
- Toss the vegetables in a tray with the oil, salt and pepper, and bake at 390 F˚ / 200 C˚ until golden brown, about 10 - 15 minutes. Check them often!
- You can also caramelize them by cooking them in a pan on a very low heat.
- Serve the risotto immediately with a generous grating of high quality grated cheese, toasted pine nuts, a little orange zest if you please and extra virgin olive oil.
- Brown rice needs to cook for much longer, about 40 minutes. Adjust the liquid accordingly, and cook until fully evaporated. Serve with cheese to make it creamy.
Stay tuned for part 2!
If you have memories from this beautiful city, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.