Imagine extensive salt gardens in a shallow Lagoon and a just a few islands permanently above water.
That was Venice, or rather, Le Venetiae, part of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire during the 4th century AD. Venice developed close commercial relationships with her mother town Byzantium and the Levant. These commercial and family ties are the causes for Venetian food to look and taste so different.
From the 7th century AD, the merchants of Venice traveled alongside the Venetian fleet down the Adriatic Sea, towards Dalmatia, Greece and the Black Sea, to Egypt and the Middle East. In the 13th century, they reached China, India and South-East Africa (Zanzibar!!)
Lagoon cuisine was soon integrated with sophisticated spices that Venetian merchants brought back from their voyages. ut Venetians not only sold these spices all over Europe – they refined them, creating their own mixtures, called sacchetti veneziani. In some public and also private libraries belonging to former Venetian noble families, we can still find books describing these recipes, their origin and history.
As Venetians have always been open and curious, foreign merchants were invited to settle in the Lagoon. First, Greek, Dalmatian, Albanian, Armenian and Jewish communities moved to Venice. The Venetian sestiere di Castello became the first example of a globalized community when many inhabitants from Constantinople resettled here in 1453.
Soon a melting pot of tastes and scents developed in Venice, unique in Europe. The first “fusion kitchen” in the world was born. The 14th century belonged to the mercanti di spezie, the Venetian merchants: They created an exclusive commercial network with trading posts in the Levant (South-Eastern Mediterranean cities and islands, from Alexandria to Constantinople and on the Black Sea). By the year 1380, Venetian merchants also included the Western Mediterranean and regions beyond into their standard trading routes.
The Romans called the Lagoon of Venice I Sette Mari – the Seven Seas. A unique habitat and climate pocket filled with sea lavender and pine trees lining the sandy beaches on the northern Adriatic sea. We have forgotten so much about the ancient food culture of the Lagoon. For more than 1,500 years, in addition to growing vegetables and fruit in the Lagoon, Venetians were experimenting with exotic edible plants used to flavor food and produce natural remedies, perfumes and beauty products.
While growing rambling spice gardens in Venice and vegetables the Lagoon islands, the Merchants of Venice, for more than 1,200 centuries, brought loads of spices which all arrived at the Rialto Market. A cooking style ensued, tasting more Levantine than Italian, with a strong resemblance to Persian and Indian Ayurveda dishes. This is the food a visitor to Venice seldom gets to taste, but which we would like to present to you in books, recipe cards, e-courses and retreats.
Re-discovering the ancient spice recipes of Venice and how they were used in food and perfumes has been Iris’ passion since she was doing reserach for her master thesis on the Lagoon. In this project, grandmother Lina who grew up in the northern Lagoon and has been working as chef and hotel owner in Venice since 1945.
In Venice, each plant, tree, shrub and herb could tell a story – not just each house and campo 🙂 While the urban features and architecture of our town are quite well known and looked after, our immaterial heritage of Venice has all but been neglected over the centuries.
A lot of ingredients from which Venetian spezièri (spice experts, apothecaries, patissiers and chefs) created a unique fusion kitchen, combing local plants, exotic herbs and blossoms, and spices from Asia and Africa.
During their decade-long trips, the spice merchants came across Ayurvedic dishes and traditional Chinese medicine as far back as the 10th century. Marco Polo was just amongst these first explorers. Venice being a province of Byzantium, food was influenced from the beginning by ancient Greek and Roman dishes, and they took up the notions of health and remedies from Greek physicians.
There was a distribution of roles amongst the Merchants of Venice and the Venetian spezieri (spice masters which later became apothecaries, cooks and pastry chefs). The Merchants picked up this style of cooking overseas, in Persia, Syria, Armenia, Arabia, India, China and other South-East Asian countries. They had the recipes collected in scripts and books. Using these books and the spices, the Venetian spezièri created their own spice mixtures. The result was a unique fusion kitchen, complete with ancient Greek, Arab, Ayurvedic and TCM elements. It’s a style of its own, combing all these elements yet so unique.