Hidden a stone’s throw from the city’s tourist traps are the fresh seafood, vibrant spices and indulgent sweets of authentic Venetian cuisine – the inspiration for London-based chef Ben Tish’s new restaurant. Food writer Skye McAlpine, who is evangelical about the flavours of her Italian childhood, invites him for a feast
I have lived in Venice for longer than I can remember. My family moved here from England when I was still small, intending to stay only for a year. But somehow we never left: Venice, with its winding canals and crumbling old buildings, has a way of taking hold of people’s hearts.
Twenty-five years on, after spending my university years in England, I am still here. I divide my time between London, where my husband works, and our little house in the sleepy district of Castello, which to me will always be home. This is where I write my blog, From My Dining Table, sharing recipes and tales from my Venetian kitchen.
The food of Venice doesn’t boast the same glittering reputation as that of other Italian regions. Generations of tourists, fed bland pasta in trattorie catering to a transient trade, have promulgated the myth of Venice as the kind of place you go to see art but not to eat.
Venetian food, and by this I mean the food eaten by Venetians, remains the city’s most precious and closely guarded secret: the canocce – sweet-tasting, if somewhat peculiar-looking, crustaceans – served raw with nothing but a drizzle of olive oil; the bruscandoli – wild hops – which come into season for only a few weeks of each year; the pillowy Veneziana focaccia, which unlike its more widely recognised Genoese counterpart is buttery and sweet, and comes topped with almonds and sugar; the way we use spices, pine nuts and bay leaves when cooking fish dishes and puddings alike; and the fine, flaky almond pastries, kiefer, which like the spritz and the strudel are a legacy that lingers on from the days when Austrian soldiers occupied the city.
It is a unique cuisine born from a city like no other, imbued with a complex history. It is the food of my childhood, laden with nostalgia and, as childhood food is wont to be, synonymous with comfort.
I can think of no better way to articulate how we cook and eat in Venice than to open the doors to my kitchen and extend an invitation. That is how I got to know Ben Tish, the chef director behind London’s Salt Yard restaurant group, which specialises in Italian and Spanish tapas and charcuterie.
Ben approached me about his plans to open the group’s fifth restaurant, a Venetian-inspired grand cafe in central London. His vision, he explained, was to capture the faded grandeur and rich history of Venice. 'We wanted something more opulent than our other restaurants,’ he said. I was intrigued.
When I discovered that Ben was coming to Venice with his business partner Simon Mullins, in the name of culinary research, we decided that we had to cook together.
We would shop at the Rialto market, go toe to toe with the pushy nonne in the queue for the vegetable stall, and carry the shopping back to the house over the bridges (the only way to do it in a city with no cars). We would cook, then eat together in my dining room, with its old, slightly lopsided beamed ceiling and marks on the floor from where the acqua alta floods when the tide is high. All of that, to me, is Venetian food, and I wanted Ben to taste it.
It rained and it poured on the day Ben arrived, though the inclement weather did little to deter us. Sheltered in the warmth of Rosa Salva cafe while sipping rich hot chocolate, we discussed the menu for our feast: we wanted a mix of classic Venetian food, such as baccalà (salt cod) and polenta, and dishes inspired by the produce and flavours that permeate Venetian cuisine.
At the Rialto, we bought bags of seafood – scampi, clams, mussels, scorfano (a repugnant-looking but exquisite-tasting fish) – the makings of a fish soup.
We stopped at Casa del Parmigiano, the cheese and charcuterie shop at the edge of the market, where more often than not queues spill out on to the street, as does the enticing aroma of saffron-infused cheeses. Later, I ushered Ben into the spice shop, Mascari, ostensibly to buy rose water for our meringues, but mostly for the sheer joy of buying spices from a store where they still weigh everything to the gram on old-fashioned scales and then carefully wrap each purchase in elegant printed paper.
As we ambled through the streets, we talked about Ben’s ideas for the restaurant; they are indeed grand. There will be all manner of seafood crudo, tartare and carpaccio. 'The best dishes I’ve had in Venice have been the raw or semi-raw fish and shellfish,’ he explained. 'I want to put my own slant on them.’
He’ll serve the very best cheese from the Veneto, including Gorgonzola layered with mascarpone – the kind that draws queues at Casa del Parmigiano and is nothing less than decadent.
'There will be cauldrons of thick, dark hot chocolate,’ he said, 'but infused with aromatic spices that tap into Venice’s Byzantine heritage.’ And frittelle, the sugar doughnuts peppered with raisins, candied peel and pine nuts that in Venice we eat only during the weeks of the carnival, will be on offer all day, every day.
As we sat down with friends and family to enjoy our banchetto, Ben made it clear that no detail would be too minor to tend to, no ingredient too troublesome to import – down to the moeche (softshell crabs), which are not only highly seasonal but local to the Venetian lagoon, and which, Ben informed me, must be fed with batter before being deep-fried in more batter to bring out their flavour.
The best of Venice, transported somehow into the heart of London. I would not have imagined it could be done, but then I would have been wrong.
Salt Yard Group’s Veneta restaurant, will open in St James Market, London, later this year
Recipes from a Venetian kitchen: Skye and Ben's feast