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

Creative Pancakes for the Painters’ Season

Dear Readers, these are the final parts, Six and Seven, of our Blog Series Sapori d’Autunno. Part Six is the recipe you will see in a moment, while Part Seven is our new Coffee Guide. You can download it at the bottom of this post.

On the first day of October, chances are that we are nostalgic because summer – the fifth season as Grandmother calls it – is slowly coming to an end. One after the other, the Biennale installations in town are closing …

But then, we used to call October the Painters’ Month, for i vedutisti, painters like Canaletto, loved the crisp and clear October light. And one could also get creative and paint a pancake in the kitchen 🙂

Our recipe dedicated to the start of this colorful month is a soft crêpe we hope you will love. At the Rialto Market, we get almond flour right now, which is finely ground almonds delivered from southern Italy. Almonds have been a favorite fruit in Venice ever since, and at the times of the Republic of Venice, plantations consisting of bitter and sweet almond trees were established on the islands of the Aegean Sea. For this reason, Venetians never ran out of almonds.

To make your pancakes, use almond flour. In addition, use almond milk instead of mineral water to prepare the pancakes because it accentuates the taste of the almonds. Using almond milk makes the dough really fluffy.

Sprinkle the pancakes with a sugar mixture consisting of cocoa powder and cane sugar, then decorate with a bar of chocolate which you have briefly heated in a pan, then top your pancake with mint liquor which we call menta in Italy.

Three Famous Venetian Rice Dishes & our Favorite Autumn Risotto

Writing about soul food can’t be complete with our beloved risotto. It’s a staple dish in our family 🙂 Rice dishes have always been a favorite in the Veneto. Rice arrived in the Veneto region in the 9th century AD, when Venetian merchants bought it via Amalfi from the Arabs that had introduced rice to Sicily. Today, most rice grown in the Veneto either comes from the Rovigo area or from the flatlands around and south of Verona.

Soon, rice became THE staple food for the Venetians. Just think of their signature dish, or national dish so to say, which is risi e bisi. The Doge and his guests ate risi e bisi (rice and green peas) on St. Mark’s Day (25 April). This is one of the recipes which arrived in our times. Others still wait to be re-discovered … and there are so many family recipes for risotto here, for every season. Often enriched with dried fruit, savoury or even sweet.

The other well-known Venetian rice dishes are risotto al radicchio and riso al nero di seppia. We’ll talk about these when their season has arrived !

In Venice, I buy rice either at Drogheria Mascari’s or at Casa del Parmigiano which I mentioned a few times in this blog series. You can see their fine selection above. You even get riso alla zucca e mela, which is rice enriched with squash and apples.

Venetians are quite strict about which rice to choose. and for risotto, riso arborio is di rigore ( a must-have !). But then, there are a number of other rice varieties on sale too, flavored and natural.

Here’s the family recipe I announced above. You can taste the Venetian September in it, from grapes to herbs and a hint of warming spices.

This is our Riso al curcuma, Asiago, funghi porcini e uva nera – Risotto flavored with turmeric and cinnamon, Asiago cheese, cepes and black grapes.

Fry cepes (fresh or dried) in olive oil, add grapes and blueberries if you like. At the same time, prepare your risotto in the Venetian way, which is stirring a lot, adding a bit of water, then stirring again … when your rice is almost al dente, add the cepes and grapes, plus tiny cubes of Asiago cheese (or Mozzarella if you like). Serve with chives, black pepper, lemon-flavored olive oil and another handful of grated parmesan cheese.

Sapori d’Autunno – Autumn Flavors from the Rialto Market & A Market Breakfast

Last weekend, autumn was palpable in Venice …. complete with cool breeze, showers, hazy-milky clouds yet there was a hint of summer warmth and pockets of sunshine in the secret corners of the courtyards. So this week, and to relaunch our Food Blog Cucina Speziata, we invite you to join us for a stroll across the Rialto Market. We left early on that Saturday morning to arrive at the market before the crowds …

Casa del Parmigiano, a favorite deli, without the crowds on Saturday … but you’ve got to be here by 9:00 am

In this series of seven blog posts, one published each day this upcoming week, we take you to shop for groceries at the Rialto Market. You will see the bounty of autumn in Venice herbs, fruit and groceries, and finally, how we use all that produce, herbs, blossoms and spices in the kitchen 🙂

In the picture above you can see a fine basket of aromatic herbs I need to make our favorite scrambled eggs dish. First, there is maggiorana (marjoram) growing wild on the southwestern shores of Italy. Next to it, you can see dried oregano. Actually, this is a varietà selvatica, oregano of wild origin, harvested on the slopes of the Monti Lattari (above the Amalfi Coast). True, at the Rialto market these days, you do get bounty from near and far :-), the way it has been for 1,500 years.

In the basket, you can also recognize free fresh fennel and water mint, tarragon and the ubiquitous basil. A mixture of these herbs will go into a hearty breakfast dish at home, uova strappazzate alle erbe selvatiche.

In Venice, you may have noticed, we eggs all day long. They are called vovi in Venetian, and often come as part of the antipasti plates called cicheti. Then, you can even find restaurants that offer pizze with fried eggs in the center, and that’s a favorite of some Venetians 🙂

Actually, we eat scrambled eggs all day long, making baked dishes with rice (looks and tastes exotic), or even fried potatoes in olive oil and scrambled eggs (that was my grandfather’s favorite snack) …

A little note about the herbs you find at the Rialto Market. A friend told me how disappointed she was that there were so many dried herbs on offer at the market stalls. Actually, these herbs are locally sourced and an absolute necessity to cook in the cooler season. I can’t imagine Venetian cooking without dried herbs in autumn and winter, and early spring. Also, the mixtures are quite flowery (as you can see below), but you need to know how to use them … for example, I buy calendula and cornflower blossoms to garnish vegan chocolate cake served in a jar 🙂

To prepare your uova strappazzate, you need to fry slices of spring onions, wild marjoram leaves (fresh), and a garlic clove in pan in olive oil, together with 1- 2 tomatoes (sliced). As soon as the garlic cloves turn slightly brown, add the eggs, bake them and season the dish with sea salt, black pepper and chili flakes.

Garnish with green grapes, basil leaves and parmesan flakes. That’s all ! And, you might like some toasted bruschetta, that is, 1-2 toasted slices of bread. We’d use the white sour bread from the Rialto Market

Of course, before we leave the market, we stop here …. this is Pasticceria Dolce Vita Cafe, and they are well-known for their delicious pistachio cream-filled cornetti. We’ll talk about these presently 🙂 Cornetto means croissant in Italian, by the way. By the way, do take a look at their website and fabulous pastries here !

Tomorrow we’ll continue with the second course of our hearty breakfast, which is a sweet warm polenta, garnished with nectarines, plums, honey, rose blossoms and cornflower petals 🙂