Treating you to Venetian Hot Chocolate


It looks thick, brown and enticing. It tastes only slightly bitter and rich, velvety and dense. What’s the secret to preparing exactly this kind of cioccolata densa for which Venice has become famous in the world ? In my opinion, this is the best soul food ever invented in Venice 🙂 It has all the ingredients to get you up and about on a cold winter day.

Unlike coffee, cocoa powder arrived in Venice rather late, only in the 18th century. Yet it became hugely successful at once. It never went through the process of first being used as farmaco (medicine) and then for cooking. When Casanova was alive and Caffé Florian first opened in Piazza in 1720, hot spicy chocolate was the favorite of Venetian noblemen and the public alike. Venetians used to flavor it, adding vanilla sugar above all, to camouflage its bitter taste. And it must be the mix of sweet spices and bitter cocoa powder that won over Venetians. And we can safely say that Caffé Florian was the first cafe in Venice offering this sweet spicy chocolate variant.

Venetians became masters in creating edible works of art made from cocoa powder, both solid and liquid. If you want to see some of these masterpieces, visit Cioccolateria Vizio e Virtù, you will be marveling at their shop windows …

Flavoring hot chocolate with cardamom and cinnamon became standard in Venice in the 18th century, and a few of these recipes for spicy chocolate have survived to this day in town. One is flavoring hot chocolate with gianduia or even with pistachio paste or amaretto liquor. By the way, you can taste this amaretto-flavored chocolate at Caffé Lavena in Piazza San Marco.

Our family recipe uses milk flavored with star anise. Always for Christmas, we add home-made chocolate-cinnamon liquor.

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CiocciolataCaldaSpezia’

1. To prepare two cups of hot chocolate, slowly heat, in a pan, four tablespoons of milk, three heaped teaspoons of cocoa powder and two teaspoons of corn flour (amido di mais).

2. In a second pan, heat 1/4 liter milk, one tablespoon of brown granulated cane sugar and one piece of star anise. Boil at low heat for about 10 minutes.

3. Add the cocoa mix and slowly bring all the ingredients to the boil, stirring constantly.

4. Before serving, either flavor with a few drops of essential bergamot oil or a teaspoon of chocolate liquor for each cup.

We use Majani chocolate liquor. My grandfather used to make chocolate-cinnamon liquor for Christmas, and I will share this recipe in our e-book Venice and the Moon – Befana and Epiphany Traditions – online soon 🙂


La Dosa Calda – The Winter Drink Venetians Loved 300 Years ago, Celebrating La Festa della Salute

There’s one ancient Venetian winter drink almost never mentioned in cookbooks. It seems it has disappeared at all, and yet it was so popular in Venice until 100 years ago. Dosa calda. Literally, this is a spice and fruit drink popular in Venice before vin brule became popular in town. In Venetian, vin brule means vino caldo spezia’. Vino spezia’ has a predecessor, if you will, and that’s the version not flavored with alcohol, or just a tiny bit with grappa.
Before Venetians went to celebrate the Mass at the Basilica della Salute, they kept themselves warm with a drink called dosa calda, whose recipe dates back to the 14th century. It was also a favorite during the Venetian winter fairs, for the end of November and early December were dedicated to fairs and exhibitions at the Rialto and other campi in town.
Treasures, garments, artefacts, carpets, curtains and the latest spice trends and boxes the Merchants of Venice had shipped to the Lagoon just before winter were exposed during these fairs. The Merchants conceded themselves a winter break and usually, no cogs left the Lagoon until 01 March, the day on which the Venetian New Year was celebrated.
Dosa Calda is the drink you would have enjoyed at the Rialto Market and during the Festa della Salute. You would have bought it on Campo della Salute just where today stalls are located next to the Grand Canal, selling sweets and the long white candles called ceri. Dosa Calda was also sold in the bacari and at the stalls which popped up along the Erbaria in winter. Here, you could buy fritelles, arancini di riso and dosa calda. And later, hot chocolate !
Retracing this recipe wasn’t easy but I found a mention of it in the book A tola co i nostri veci, and I discovered a recipe for a similar drink which had survived in the northern Lagoon where Grandmother lived as a child. We are now sharing this family recipe with you.
Our variant of dosa calda survived in a corner of the northern Lagoon, in Iesolo to be precise, in a family cooking journal written around 1880. Iesolo isn’t just the pine-fringed beaches looking south onto the Adriatic shores. Part of it is the Lagoon and looks west, onto the area now called L’Orto del Doge, the Doge’s Garden, comprising Lio Piccolo, Lio Mazor and Le Vignole. Many fine yet simple Venetian recipes were created in this area of the northern Lagoon.
Dosa Calda – Venetian Fig and Citrus Winter Drink
Cut three dried or fresh figs into thin slices, put them into a pan and add two tablespoons uva passa (raisins) and half a teaspoon liquorice root. Instead of liquorice root, you could also use a teaspoon aniseed. Bring the ingredients to the boil with two cups of water. Leave to simmer for five minutes, then take the pan off the heat. Leave to stand for five minutes in a warm place and stir in one teaspoon honey (we use miele di acacia) and another teaspoon grated lemon peel. Cover the pan with a lid, add a hint of cinnamon and 1-2 cloves and leave the ingredients to infuse for another five minutes. Now, your Venetian winter drink, la dosa calda, is ready, taking you right back to the early years of the 17th century when La Festa della Salute was first celebrated in Venice.
 Dosa calda not only restores warmth after being exposed to the humidity of late November in Venice (or anywhere in the world!) but has also got all the natural benefits to strengthen your immune system. Figs and citrus fruit, coming in small doses provide Vitamin C, and the spices do the rest.
During the days preceding and following La Festa della Salute, people ate a special menu, and it wasn’t just all castradina. Castradina, a mutton stew cooked with cabbage, was the main dish amongst other autumn food made from ingredients easily retrieved in orchards. Join and travel to Venice virtually when she celebrates La Festa della Madonna della Salute on 21 November in this article on our Venice Lifestyle Blog, La Venessiana. Subscribers to our Monthly Postcard from Venice will receive the ancient Menu of La Festa della Salute via email on 21 November. Would you like to receive this gift ? Click here and subsribe to our Postcard + Welcome Kit !
 

Pan del Doge al Pistacchio – Taste & Bake the Doge’s Autumn Cake

 

The Doges of Venice seemed to love dishes with a green touch. Even their signature dish, risi e bisi, which the Doge’s family and their entourage ate on 25 April, was green.  Risi e bisi is a rather liquid risotto (all’onda) in which the baccelli (pods) of the bisi (green peas) were cooked with the peas and rice. The Doges, just like Venetians in general, have always loved green sauces, le salse verdi. And in autumn, in particular during late October and early November, elaborate pistachio cakes were created for them and their guests.

In winter, Venetian cakes, or pan dolse (sweet breads) as they were called in the past, would be flavored with lemon or orange juice. In autumn, pomegranates and pistachios were used to flavor and color cakes. Colorful food, tinted naturally, was an essential ingredient to create a cuisine that Venice was proud of. And in spring, pink syrup made from rose petals and spices was used to flavor cakes.

Autumn is the season of almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and pistachios in Italy, and Venice is no exception. Mele cotogne (quinces) and melograni (pomegranates) were essential ingredients in former times and still are here in Venice. Not just for cakes …

Combining these ingredients with spices when baking a cake means you will get something typical Venetian on your table. Just like in the past, the Rialto Market is still the hub where you can load up on fine produce, herbs and spices. There is also pistachio liquor and crema di pistachio, the delicious sweet pistachio cream made from Sicilian pistachios (i pistacchi di Bronte).

When you look at the vetrina (store window) of pastry stores in Venice, you often find the so-called Doge’s Cake – Pan del Doge. I can definitely say that the names cakes are given in Venice aren’t inventions of creative patissiers. On the contrary, based on family recipes and ancient recipe booklets available at the Venetian State Archive and at Biblioteca Marciana, the cakes we bake today are VERY similar to those of the past.

Which are the ingredients of pan di pistacchio? It’s rather easy to prepare, made from same dough you would use to make zaleti cookies. Substitute one third of the flour with farina di pistachio (ground pistachios), add 3 tablespoons crema di pistacchio to make the dough more soft and perhaps 2-3 tablespoons pistachio liquor.

If you are in Venice, look out for pistachio bread in Strada Nova. Pasticceria Giovanni Pitteri is an expert in making delicious pistachio cakes and zaleti, like the ones you can see in the cover page of this post. I also love the pistachio heart-shaped cookies, cuoricini al pistacchio which I discovered at Pasticceria Marchini Time. In addition to cakes and cookies, you also find torroncini and praline al pistacchio, pistachio-flavored sweet balls in Venice, enhanced with chocolate drops.

And there are the zaleti al pistacchio. Zaleti are the famous Venetian “yellow” cookies enhanced with chocolate drops and grappa-flavored raisins. Sometimes, part of the maize flour they are made from is substituted with pistachio flour and pistachio cream.

Click here to download Nonna Lina’s recipe for zaleti, including the variant zaleti al pistachio – pistachio-flavored zaleti.

You can buy the ingredients to make pan pistacchio and all the other cookies, like farina di mandorle (almond flour) and crema di pistacchio di Bronte at Drogheria Mascari, my favorite gourmet store. I discovered the torroncini al pistacchio at Pasticceria Dolce Vita at the Rialto Market.

Celebrating Samhain with Risotto del Contadino

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

Simple and Luxurious Autumn Recipes – Cooking with Truffles in the Veneto

In Part 5 of our Sapori d’Autunno Blog series, we talk about tartufo: I think there’s no better flavor than tartufi (truffles) conveying the earthen scent of autumn in your kitchen 🙂 And to reach this purpose in an effective and economical manner, we’ve got a few tips for you.

First, we use truffles very sparingly, and not always truffles themselves. They taste incredibly intense and must be used in the right manner by all means. For example, we often use high-quality olive oil flavored with tartufo and it conveys just the right amount of earthen taste to risotto or a pasta dish.

While the Apennines are best known for truffles in Italy, you find both tartufo nero (black truffles) and tartufo bianco (white truffles) in various areas (zone tartufigene) in the Veneto as well. For example, black truffles come from the Colli Euganei and Colli Berici hills. White truffles can be found in the southern parts, around the Po River Delta, Polesine and Rovigo.

Flavoring risotto with truffles

When cooking risi in bianco, plain risotto rice (take a look at this post to learn more about risotto rice), we add neutral flavors like a few cubes of zucca gialla (yellow butternut squash) and/or wood berries to enhance the truffle taste. You could also add a spoonful of dry white wine while stirring your risotto, and/or a tiny amount of dried tomatoes.

Serve your risotto with scaglie di parmigiano (parmesan slices, or even better, with cubes of Asiago cheese like I did in the picture below) and sprinkle with olio aromatizzato al tartufo. This is the most economical way to get that flavor as often as you like and the right amount of this flavor, neither too weak nor too intense.

With regard to spices, it’s cinnamon and black pepper that best enhance the flavor of tartufo. Use herbs sparingly, but chives, parsley, and above all, tarragon, will work just fine. Also, dried fruit, used sparingly, can enhance your truffle pasta or rice dish, such as uva passa (raisins) or even pinoli (pine nuts).

 

Cooking pasta sauce with truffles flavor

Here we can prepare a creamier variant than with risotto. For example, I cooked this pasta corta alla salicornia e tartufo – short pasta with salicornia herbs and truffles.

Salicornia is a herb growing on the island swamps of the Lagoon, and sometimes alongside the cultivations and the little canals criss-crossing vegetable gardens on the Lagoon islands, such as Mazzorbo, Sant’Erasmo or Le Vignole.

To prepare your pasta sauce, cook the salicornia herbs in a little bit of water until soft. Fry them in a pan for a few minutes, add cream, a hint of cinnamon, sea salt and black pepper. Add the pasta and flavor your dish with olive oil flavored with truffles. In case you use “real” truffles, use a tiny bit of them (grated) while you heat the sauce with the cream. Garnish with Asiago cheese and flavor with black pepper. I also added a few slices of fried courgettes 🙂

By the way – if you would like to know more about Lagoon herbs, I recommend you make a visit to the Serra dei Giardini ! This is a hothouse where you can buy plants, seeds, and also enjoy afternoon tea, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In 2012, during the Biennale, I went to attend the Festival della Laguna, part of which also took place at the Serra dei Giardini.  There’s also a blog dedicated to the 2012 Edition of the Festival della Laguna, click here to view it.

 

I was an avid visitor at this Festival della Laguna five years ago. While visiting the exhibition hosted by Serra dei Giardini, I first thought about starting a blog on Venice dedicated to its Secret World of Herbs and Spices 🙂 Take a look at this website, even though it’s five years old. You will find a lot of useful information on the Lagoon islands, their vocation, and of course, farms, orchards and vegetables !

The History of Venetian Polenta and a Sweet Market Breakfast

The first products distributed at the Rialto Market, in the 6th century AD, were bread and water. Perhaps it’s no co-incidence that on Campiello dei Meloni, in the San Polo Market area, there’s a street food bar called Acqua e Mais. The “bread” baked with maize flour was called polenta, and it comes sweet and savoury. Easy to prepare, with a thousand possibilities, just a perfect kind of cibo di strada – street food in particular in the winter.

Water and maize have been the main ingredients for bread in Venice. Every location has developed its own bread, after all. At first, I found it surprising that maize wasn’t imported in big quantities to Venice after Columbus had returned from his trip to the Americas. In fact, Venetian merchants did import a certain amount, they were too curious not to do that. They had had, however, an endemic grain variety called “grano turco” ever since … If you take a look at the ancient cookbooks, or others that I go to, such as La Cucina Tradizionale Veneta, you will find that granoturco was introduced from the Levant, probably from northern Persia, alongside with a host of other luxurious ingredients Venetians loved trading with.

So there were “yellow varieties of grain” growing in the Veneto ever since. In fact, they are still here and have been used to bake the Venetian biscuits called zaleti (yellow biscuit breads) for the explorers and merchants to remain healthy during their sea voyages.

My favorite zaléti at the Rialto Market were made by Franco Carlon, who also offered incredibly soft and tasty polenta-coconut cakelets called cestoni al cocco … but by now, these are childhood memories.

I buy Venetian farina di polenta, polenta flour, which is now produced outside Rovigo, around Treviso and Vicenza, at the Casa del Parmigiano, a deli located at the Rialto Market on Campo Bella Vienna.

As announced, a favorite autumn breakfast in my family is made from polenta. As we still get summer fruit like peaches, plums and nectarines, and also wood berries, these could become the sweet ingredient to garnish our polenta cake. Or, we also love home-made fruit gels and jam.

The other ingredient is home-made lavender syrup, from which we will make lavender icing, and to bring back summer vibes, I used some red currant gel to bake, and a few leaves of water mint and lemon balm

To prepare the pancakes, just substitute half the amount of flour with farina di polenta, polenta flour, prepare the dough with sparkling mineral water (!). Flavor with coconut sugar, cinnamon, lemon balm and water mint leaves. Pour the mixture into a pan, place a tiny spoonful of marmellata al ribes rosso, or your favorite fruit gel or jam in the center. Fry on both sides in olive oil, then garnish with cinnamon, sugar flakes, honey and a teaspoon lavender icing or syrup. Here you go 🙂

Tomorrow, we are going to take a look at our market lunch menu … we’ll start with a special creamy fall soup, based on patate americane, herbs, spices and of course, squash !