Friday 25 December 2015

A Christmas Peregrination

Happy Christmas!

La Peregrinacion. Ariel Ramirez. Performed by the King's Singers.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Venice: Twelve Tips for First-Timers

This week, a guest post from Lynn Reynolds

So you’re off to Venice for your first ever visit, eh? Lucky you! Here are a few brief pointers to help you get the most from your time, whether that be a long weekend or a fortnight. Everybody’s experience of this extraordinary city is different, so I’m keeping my tips fairly practical. But on the basis that you’ll enjoy yourself all the more if you know something about the history of the place, I’ve also included links to relevant background sources.
  1. Before you leave, it’s worth taking some time to look at what the Grand Tourists of the 18th and 19th centuries saw when they visited Venice. Various galleries in different towns (such as London’s Wallace Collection) exhibit collections of so-called view paintings, the era’s equivalent of the postcard or location selfie.
  1. If you’re flying into Marco Polo airport, you could take a water bus from there to your destination. But if you have €110 to spare, I recommend opting for a motoscafo, or taxi. These wood-panelled speedboats whiz you and your luggage as near to your doorstep as they can, and you’ll have an amazing view along the way.
  1. Pack light, because you’ll probably need to carry your luggage at some point. No, lighter than that. Preferably in a backpack, or something you can easily hoist across expanses of cobbles and the numerous bridges you’ll almost certainly encounter on your way from the taxi stop to your hotel/hostel/apartment.
  1. Here’s one just for travellers from the UK. When selecting your seats on the plane, observe the SOPH (starboard out, port home) principle. Then you’ll be rewarded with memorable vistas of the city upon your approach and departure.
  1. Be warned that there’s a 10-minute walk from Marco Polo airport to the water bus or taxi rank. In fact there’s a lot of walking in general in Venice, few elevators anywhere, and many bridges to cross, which means plenty of steps. On the way back to the airport from my last visit, I walked in front of a young woman who spent the entire ten minutes lamenting that if she’d known visiting Venice was going to be so tiring, she’d have stayed at home and gone to the gym every day instead.
  1. My fellow women: Venice is one of the most genuinely glamorous and elegant places you’ll ever visit, but if you wear high heels to walk anything but a short distance you’ll end up in serious pain. Surfaces all tend to be uneven, slippery, hard and unforgiving. The city is full of shops selling soft, comfy (often quite ugly) shoes, and there’s a very good reason for that. Take a stylish pair of flats so you won’t need to make an unflattering emergency purchase.
  1. Eat on the hoof most of the time. My opinion of restaurant food in Venice is a resounding “meh”. In my opinion, it’s certainly not worth missing out on sightseeing time for. Fortunately, snack foods like tramezzini and mozzarella in carozza are pretty good, and they’ll keep you going as you power round those must-see destinations. But when you do want something more substantial, here’s what to look for.
  1. Even if you’re only visiting for a short time, you must go to Torcello. When you do, you’ll experience Venice’s origins. All the better to appreciate the city’s amazing transformation from a settlement of refugees in a malarial swamp to the head of one of the most enduring empires in history.
  1. If you really love classical music, you could go to the opera at the Gran Teatro la Fenice. But if you prefer a more intimate experience, check out Musica a Palazzo. This company perform a variety of programmes to small audiences in the splendid surroundings of a real Venetian palace.
  1. Do take a gondola ride. But instead of encouraging your gondolier to sing cliched folk songs originating hundreds of miles south of Venice, ask him—for it will be a him—to tell you more about this truly unique form of water transportation. Sounds nerdy, but you won’t regret it.
  1. When you see an ice cream shop called Grom, drop in and have one. It’s probably the best ice cream you’ll find anywhere.
  1. Don’t miss cocktail hour. You’ll know it when it happens, because you’ll see lots of people sitting around in front of bright orange and deep red drinks. My bet is that you’ll be only too pleased to join in, because there aren’t a lot of places to sit down in Venice, and by now your feet will be killing you.

Friday 11 December 2015

Drinky-poos in Venice

Cocktail time in Venice is bright orange

The visitor to Venice with the even slightest interest in drink will notice on practically every table and bar counter glasses of filled with an enticing orange liquid. This is the Spritz, which these days seems to be the drink most closely associated with Venice. 
Campo San Barnaba, Venice.
3 glasses of Spritz. The item in my hand is a selfie stick. 
(Picture cropped to preserve the anonymity of my companions)
A spritz is made from white wine or prosecco, a splash of soda water, and a "bitter", usually AperolIt’s served over ice, usually garnished with a green olive at the end of a long stick, and /or a slice of orange or lemon, and makes a delightful aperitif, light and refreshing, sweetish, a bit orange-y (or is that the colour influencing my perception?) , with a little bitterness. 
The spritz has its origins in the period when Venice was ruled by the Austrians, and derives from the Austro-Hungarian habit of mixing wine with sparkling water to make a Spritzer. In the 20th century, Venetians began adding bitters to produce the Spritz as we know it today. Apart from Aperol, you can also have yours made with Campari (less sweet and more bitter). Or you could have it with Select, which is a little more bitter. Select was first made in Murano in 1920, and labels itself the Very Venetian aperitif. It’s difficult to find outside the area, and doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. It makes a good Spritz, with a bright red colour. In recent years, thanks to intensive marketing by Campari, who now own Aperol, the spritz is available in bars all over the world, from London to Singapore, but you will probably find it difficult to to get one made with Select if you are outside the Veneto region, so you might want to seize the opportunity while you are there.

Image from 
I think the Spritz on the left is made with Select, and the one on the right with Aperol
It’s worth noting, by the way, that Aperol has an alcohol content of 11%, and Campari about twice that. I'm not sure about Select, but I think its strength is more towards the Campari end of the range. If you don't realise this, the effect can be a bit startling if you've only tried the Aperol Spritz, then decide to sample some of the other versions. You can also make a Sprtiz with Cynar, which is a bitter made from artichokes. I've only just discovered this variant, and I just remember to try one at the next opportunity.
If you want something with a bit less alcohol, you can of course have Aperol with soda, which is very pleasant. There are also soft drinks with a similar flavour, such as Sanbittèr, which make rather pleasant non-alcoholic aperitifs, so you can still sit around in a bar enjoying your bright orange drink even if you are teetotal, or below the age of lawful alcohol consumption..
One of the nice things about Venetian bars is that many of them offer a wide selection of wine, available by the glass in small measures, and at prices which are very reasonable to people from places like the UK or Singapore, owing to the different taxation policies (freshly-squeezed orange juice is usually more expensive). The bars also often have a range of delicious snacks, as described in my previous blog post on food. If you like your wine sparkling, you will be delighted to know that Prosecco is a local wine, and widely available, and you should be able to have your wine fizzy rather than still on every occasion without feeling especially self-indulgent.

Which brings us to that other Venetian cocktail, the Bellini, invented at the famous Harry’s Bar and is made from prosecco and white peach puree, with the addition of sugar syrup if the peaches are tart. I’ve been fortunate to have tried it at the establishment where it was invented, and I liked it very much. The combination of peach and prosecco was delightful.
You can also buy your Bellini ready-made in bottles produced by Cipriani (the owners of Harry’s Bar), which are pretty good. Should you wish to prepare it yourself from scratch, remember that it's not a sort of Buck's Fizz made by adding peach juice to prosecco. The Harry’s Bar website advises you to use fresh frozen white peach puree, not to use a food processor if you are making the puree yourself (as this will aerate the fruit), and to never use yellow peaches or other additives like peach schnapps. Like the Singapore Sling, it’s one of those excellent concoctions which have been brought into disrepute by improperly made versions. 
In your wanderings around the city, keep your eye out for the modest local shops, usually found in the quieter parts of town, where inexpensive but very agreeable wine is dispensed from large demijohns into the customers' own bottles (usually re-used plastic mineral water bottles).

They usually have containers to hand for people who require them, but on our last visit the shop we visited had run out of bottles, so we had to gulp down the mineral water we had on us and use the bottle thus made available. And yes, you can fill your 1.5 litre used mineral water bottle with prosecco from the tank for a very reasonable price.

That concludes my review of drinks in Venice. Cin cin!

Related post: Food in Venice - a personal view

Friday 4 December 2015

Food in Venice - a personal view

In which we discuss Venetian food

As a city whose economy is dominated by tourism, in Venice there’s no shortage of places for the visitor to eat. The food does vary a little from what you might be used to in your local Italian restaurant, and if you are keen to sample the regional cuisine, it’s worth knowing what to look out for, since many of the establishments might aim to cater for the less adventurous tourist.

As you might expect, seafood features strongly in Venetian cuisine: fish, squid, cuttlefish, prawns, crabs and clams, but also unsual crustacean species, such as the canoce or mantis shrimp, with markings on the tail that look like eyes. A good place to see the raw ingredients is at the famous Rialto market. The guidebooks will tell you that this is where the locals have always gone for the finest produce, and perhaps that is so, although I suspect that most of them might shop at places nearer their homes, of which you will find numerous examples. I used to wonder if the local restaurants obtained their supplies here, and asked the staff at one of the better establishments, who told me that they got their produce from the nearby fishing port of Chioggia, which makes perfect sense, since the Rialto market isn’t big enough to supply the catering industry.

Of course, like in the rest of Italy, a lot of pasta is consumed, but in Venice they also eat a lot of rice. Years ago, in the days before cheap flights, I woke up in the morning during an overnight train journey to Venice and was rather puzzled when I looked out of the window and saw what looked like paddy fields. Of course, they were paddy fields. I was passing through the Po valley in northern Italy, a major rice-growing area.

The classic rice preparation is risotto, in which the rice is cooked in a pan by gradually adding stock, a little at a time, until enough of it has been absorbed and the dish is ready. There are lots of variants, which in Venice often incorporate various kinds of seafood. Unlike pasta, which can be put into a pot of boiling water and left until it is ready, the preparation of risotto requires the constant presence of the cook, so many restaurants do not offer it on their menus. I tend to assume that a restaurant that has risotto on the menu is probably better than one which does not, especially if it comes with a warning that it will take 20 minutes or so to cook.

The other ubiquitous grain is polenta or cornmeal, which can be served as a sort of mush to accompany various dishes, or as a sort of cake, both of which I find quite agreeable, although it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Fish and vegetables tend to be cooked quite simply, and with only a moderate use of garlic, herbs and spices. Things tend to be fried slowly over a gentle flame, so that onions remain pale and not brown. If you are renting an apartment and want to have a go at authentic Venetian cookery, it’s not difficult to reproduce many of the restaurant dishes with the aid of a good cookbook, or an online recipe.

I can’t claim to have extensive experience of the restaurants in Venice, but there is one establishment, first recommended to me by a friend who grew up there, where you can sample more or less all the typical dishes at a moderate price. The Rosticceria San Bartolomeo, also known as Ghislon, is in an alleyway off the Campo San Bartolomeo, close to the Rialto Bridge and therefore very central. It’s a self service establishment and here you can get starters and a range of meat and fish dishes, as well as snacks.

(Image from the restaurant's Facebook page)

This is a good time to list a just a few Venetian dishes to which I am partial, which you will be able to get here:
  • Bigoli in Salsa: Bigoli is a spaghetti-like pasta made from buckwheat or whole wheat flour. The salsa is a sauce made from slowly-cooked white onions and anchovies. Some versions also include sardines.
  • Risotto: Different versions are served at the Rosticceria, depending on the day.
  • Seppie nere : baby squid cooked in its ink, available with polenta, spaghetti, or in risotto
  • Pasta e Fagioli: Borlotti beans which are have been cooked until they form a sort of puree, then mixed with short pasta. This is like a thick soup. It sounds odd but is very tasty.
  • Baccala mantecata: A creamy preparation of dried salt cod that has been rehydrated, cooked, then pounded with olive oil and milk or cream into a paste. Served with polenta as a main course, but often also on rounds of bread as a snack
  • Fegato alla veneziana: Calves liver and onions. Accompanied by polenta.
If you just want a snack, the Rosticceria excels at these. I like their Mozzarella in Carrozza, essentially a deep fried mozzarella sandwich. This is available in various versions. My favourite is the one with anchovy (“Acciuga”).

This is a good time to mention that the snacks in the city as a whole are often very agreeable. Many of the bars serve tramezzini, triangular overstuffed white bread sandwiches with various fillings. They are made with large crust-less slices of white bread. The fillings are mayonnaise-based and include combinations like hard boiled eggs and anchovies, chopped ham and mushrooms, or prawns and rocket. The sandwiches are filled so that the middle is full and bulging. Then the edges are pressed together and the bread sliced on the diagonal, so that you end up with a triangular sandwich in which the hypotenuse has profile of a convex lens. They are delicious. Although easy to make, I have never seen them in the UK or Singapore, and you won’t be able to make them at home because that sort of bread doesn’t seem to be available (I’ve tried).

There are lots of other sorts of snacks, and you will be able to select them for yourself based on the way they look. They are known here as “cichetti”, which is more or less the Venetian equivalent of tapas, and you will find them all over the city. There are some well known cichetti bars behind the Rialto, such as the Cantina do Mori, which are lots of fun. Another which is near an apartment where I used to stay is the Cantinone (Già Schiavi), a wine shop which serves prize-winning snacks, situated across a canal from one of the last remaining boatyards that still makes gondolas.

For a bit of a blow out, I would recommend Corte Sconta, which is very well known, and in all the guidebooks, but deservedly so as the food is excellent.

If you are visiting Torcello (which I particularly recommend) or Burano, its worth considering a visit to Alla Maddalena on the island of Mazzorbo, especially in the colder months when they serve wild duck, shot by local hunters.

Here are some listings, but just in case you are not familiar with it, here is an explanation of the Venetian system of addresses. Venice is divided into six districts or sestieri, and the house numbers pertain to the district and not the street. So, for example, the address of Corte Sconta is Castello 3886, ie, house number 3886 in the sestier of Castello, which happens to be in the street called Calle del Pestrin.

So here are the listings:

Rosticceria San Bartolomeo
Calle del Bissa, just of Campo San Bartolomeo
San Marco 5424/a
open daily 0900 -  2130
Facebook page

Cantina do Mori
Sottoportego dei Do Mori
San Polo 429
0800 - 1930 closed Sun

Cantinone (Già Schiavi)
Fondamenta Nani, by Ponte San Trovaso
Dorsodouro 992
0800 - 2000, closed Sun

Corte Sconta
Calle del Pestrin
Castello 3886
closed Sun, Mon

Alla Maddalena
via Mazzorbo 7/B
Venezia Burano Mazzorbo 30142
closed Wed

So much for the food. Next time: drinks.