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What to Eat?

It is a truth universally stated that the food of Venice was, and is, not of the highest Italian quality. “The Venetians are wretched cooks,” an Englishwoman wrote in 1771. Jan Morris, one of the most perceptive observers of Venetian life, remarked two centuries later that “Venetian cooking is undistinguished.” The cuisine is, to say the least, limited. Yet this may be the fate of all small islands. The food of Corsica and Malta, for example, is well known for its poverty.

There can be no doubt about the quantity, if not the quality, of food in the city. Travellers noted the abundance of bread, of fruit, of vegetables, and of fish. Thomas Coryat, in the early seventeenth century, remarked upon “the marveilous affluence and exuberancy of all things tending to the sustenation of mans life” in Venice. He went on to describe “the Grapes, Peares, Apples, Plummes, Apricockes, Figges most excellent of three or foure sorts.” The banqueting scenes of Venetian painting, particularly in the work of Veronese and Tintoretto, are well known for their munificence. There are endless Last Suppers in the Venetian canon. Tintoretto himself painted six of them. Here, at least in idealised form, is the epitome of what Coryat called “sustenation.” The triumph of food represents the triumph of trade and of commerce. It can also be construed as the triumph of empire, with the colonies of Venice being obliged to provide comestibles to their “mother.” In a city obsessed by show and the lure of the market, the colour of food was also important. Oysters were gilded. Saffron was indispensable in the kitchen as well as in the painter’s studio.

Yet all was not as it seemed. One fifteenth-century observer, Canon Casola, remarked that although there was much fish in Venice he never saw a fine one nor ate a good one. There were fish everywhere, of course. But the fish in the canals were never eaten. It would be like eating rats.

The Venetians were in any case considered to be an abstemious people, easily pleased with plain fare. There was in the nineteenth century a typical Venetian invitation to dinner, “venga a mangiar quattro risi con me,” come and eat four grains of rice with me. They never gorged. They were rarely, if ever, incapacitated by drink. There was also a social as well as a dietary principle at work in Venetian temperance. To be drunk was to embarrass the whole city. Whereas in Paris or in London drunkenness was considered to be a necessary fact of life, reaping no dishonour, the tight community of Venice exacted its own particular control over the appetites of its citizens.

The patrician diet, through the centuries, was solid and unadventurous consisting of meat and vegetables such as cabbage and turnip, as well as fruit and cheese. The patricians had a fondness, however, for chocolate and ices; these may be classed as luxury items in a city of luxury goods. There were other forms of culinary display. The patricians of Venice were the first people in the world to use forks and glassware. Sauces were often sweet and cloying; but there was also a propensity for vinegar and other sharp ingredients. It is pertinent that the Venetians had a monopoly on the salt and sugar trades throughout Europe.

The people had their circuses, but they also needed their bread. It was one way of forestalling civic unrest for, in the words of one Venetian saying, “if your mouth is full, you can’t say no.” Many households possessed bread ovens. The government kept large stocks of millet in case of scarcity, but it was not much liked; its only virtue was its capacity for long storage. Maize was introduced, on terra firma, in 1539. It was a success. The Venetians, according to Fynes Morrison, “spend much on bread and oyle, and the very porters feede on most pure white bread … I never remember to have seen brown bread.” Bread, and wine, were the only items about which the Venetians could be considered connoisseurs. White bread was a necessity of life.

There was also the food of the poor, the ubiquitous polenta consisting of white cornmeal mixed with water. It was, and is still, a dull and unappetising meal. Rice was introduced in the 1470s, thus creating the first dish of risotto. When the bell rang to summon workers to their midday meal, the general fare was fish, bread and fruit, with the occasional helping of pork or poultry. Pumpkin and melon were sold by the slice. The labouring people were inclined towards raw fruit and vegetables, disdained by the more refined elements of the population; raw food was considered to be bad for the health. On the Venetian mainland, beans and rye were the typical foodstuffs of the poor. It is claimed that such a diet kept the peasants weak and compliant.

The Venetians had a proverb to the effect that God would take water away from the man who did not like wine. There was a large variety of wines in Venice throughout its history, although by the sixteenth century much of it came from the Venetian colonies of Crete and Cyprus. Yet foreign observers tended to be dismissive of the quality of Venetian wine in general, one of them comparing it to vinegar and water. That cannot be said of the champagne of Venice, known as prosecco, from a white grape grown in the Veneto region. Venetians were, and still are, generally content with a small glass of white or red wine, known as ombra, taken with modest quantities of cheese or green olives. It is an ancient drink, its name meaning “shade.” It refers to a custom of the late fourteenth century, when wine-sellers of Saint Mark’s Square moved their stalls out of the sun into the shadow of the campanile. It was a way of attracting custom.

Venice has always been more famous for its cafés than for its restaurants. In the eighteenth century they were calculated to number two hundred, with thirty-five in Saint Mark’s Square itself. Venice was in fact one of the first cities in Europe to favour coffee, which was borrowed from the Turks of Constantinople. Patrician ladies had a favourite café, as did their husbands; government secretaries frequented another establishment and, as in London, there were coffee shops for all the various occupations of the city. The most celebrated of them, Florian’s, opened its doors in 1720 under the name of “Venice Triumphant” and has been doing business ever since. The Venetians seemed to favour entertaining out of doors, with cups of coffee and cups of chocolate, with glasses of lemonade and syrup. The people could also sit and drink in the barber’s shop or the bookshop; the shops of apothecaries, or pharmacists, were also popular for the exchange of gossip and news. The city was constantly watching, and talking about, itself.

There were taverns and wine-shops or malvasie for nobles and merchants, gondoliers and workmen. In the morning they were the haunts of those coming for a small glass of wine; in the evening they became the eating places of the poorer people. They could also act as pawn-dealerships and gambling dens. The government was always suspicious of even moderate gatherings of people, fearing subversion of the state, and spies were employed in the more famous taverns and hotels such as the Black Eagle and the White Lion. The senate also legislated to reduce the size of such places. As a result there were many that could only hold five or six customers at any one time. The casks of wine were stacked at the back while, above them, was placed an image of the Virgin with its ever-renewed light.

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