Like elsewhere, Halloween in Venice couldn’t work properly without la zucca – pumpkins decorations and dishes. But then, when my grandmother was young and the notion of Halloween wasn’t generally known in the Veneto, squashes were a staple food in late October. Especially, pumpkins were used to make delicious risotto.
It seems that squashes arrived via the Levant in Venice. Venetians had their own home-grown varieties long before Halloween was taken up in the Veneto. For there were other things to celebrate and look forward to …
When my grandmother was young and lived in the countryside in the northern Lagoon, autumn meant a busy time … and it wasn’t all about harvesting. For November 1st marked a special period in the Venetian calendar, the beginning of the new agricultural year ! We’ll write about all that in one of our first posts in November.
So first, after the Remembrance Days had been solemnly celebrated on 1 and 2 November, this month actually became very festive, but with a purpose. For it’s one of the two months when Venice celebrates her very existence (the other is July).
First, in November you already harvested wonderful food and fruit. A bounty to choose from little known or forgotten varieties I don’t see in many other places. I mean, mulberries, pomegranates, figs, quinces and persimmons. Apples, pears and olives.
Venetians loved, and still love, eating pheasant, faraona, and goose in November. They eat goose to recall the tradition of Saint Martin being saved by geese, on 11 November. Then, November is a transition month: After we celebrate La Festa della Salute on 21 November, it is more quiet and Venetians are getting ready for Christmas time.
Yes, you read that correct. Getting ready for Christmas used to be a quiet time. My grandmother tells that people spent it baking, cooking risotti, hunting (fowl) and fishing (pesce di San Pietro, mostly) in the Lagoon. Only a few days before Christmas were pine twigs cut to decorate the house. But that’s another story we will tell when Christmas is around the corner.
In our family, the beginning of November / end of October was celebrated with squash. Zucca, and now, the variety with the hard emerald-colored skin, zucca marina di Chioggia, una zucca rugosa, was available at the markets. You can see it in all the images of this post 🙂 We cut it in small dices and use it as main ingredient to make Risotto del Contadino.
This risotto consists of two parts, so I think it’s very luxurious 🙂 Part one is the risotto itself, consisting of diced pumpkins, red onions, Arborio risotto rice, red wine (we use a little glass of vino raboso, by the way), and wine cheese (formaggio al vino – we use Fienotto, or any soft, wine-flavored cheese we can get). Lots of pepper and chili flakes go into the risotto broth (all’onda) as well..
We prepare part 1 of this dish as we usually cook risotto. That means, adding water in little bits and stirring the rice, diced pumpkins, apples, grapes and onions a lot. Then we add salt and spices (the warm mixture: black pepper, cinnamon, a tiny hint of yellow curry powder and dried chili flakes). Finally, we garnish with tiny dices of the cheese and wait a few minutes until they melt into the risotto.
Part 2 of our dish consists of a special, warming, seasonal topping. In a pan, we fry raisins, pinoli (pine nuts) and a few slices of persimmon. I cachi (persimmons) are the most ancient variety of apple that came to Europe via the spice route during Roman times. And they do taste like a warming exotic apple and vanilla mix.
In Venice, you can often find neglected persimmon trees in the tiny garden courtyards. We pick all our persimmons and they are used to make jam, syrups and to flavor spicy dishes like piatti unici and this risotto. They also look nice if you want to garnish a special dish …
Then, the end of October can be considered a “second spring” as I mentioned above. For example, the herbs in the courtyard garden still look nice and love the sun. Above, you can see our erba cola (artemisia abrotanum marittima) and our olmaria.
By the way, we pick a leaf of olmaria and use it to make a cup of herbal infusion in case anyone in the family suffers from a headache due to autumn weather swings.. It has a rather neutral taste, very greenish, and is often a fine alternative to taking aspirina…