A few months ago we had a wonderful letter from Italian cook Marcella Hazan who had been guest chef at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in July 1992.
She and her husband Victor spent five or six days with us and among other things we took them to dinner at John and Elmary Desmond’s restaurant on Hare Island off Baltimore in West Cork. We all got drenched to the skin both on the open boat trip and as we walked up the lane to the restaurant. The normally beautifully coiffed and poised Marcella was reduced to the same disheveled state as the rest of us, but despite the fact that she is unlikely to have been subjected to this kind of experience in her entire life before or since then we all had great fun. She entered into the spirit and we of course had a delicious dinner. It transpired that this experience and several others on her trip to Ireland are forever etched in her memory and will be included in her autobiography to be published in October 2008.
Marcella and Victor lived for most of their married life in Italy, first in Bologna from where they ran a very successful cookery school and later in Venice. In March 1999 they moved to Florida to be closer to their son Giuliano and two little grand-daughters Gabriela and Michela.
They return to Italy from time to time but now Marcella is 83 and the purpose of this letter was to tell us that she and Victor were coming back to Italy probably for the last time. They planned to stay at the lovely Cipriani Hotel on the Guidecca in Venice for 3 weeks and so were inviting friends from all over the world who had been part of their lives at various stages to come and join them for a few days. Such a lovely idea and the perfect excuse to take a break.
The weather in Venice can be perfect in late September although nothing is predictable any longer (fortunately we missed the torrential rain and hailstones). Apart from all the perennial attractions, the Biannale continues until the end of November, Tracy Emin’s controversial pieces are this year’s talking point.
For lovers of art, music and culture, Venice is a feast for all the senses, food lovers however need to do some careful planning. Unless you are prepared to endure the worst kind of reheated pasta and tired salads, avoid the tourist spots like the plague. Easier said than done in a town where thousands of tourists pour in every day and several hundred others disgorge from cruise ships. Most people only visit Venice once so there is a feeling that some businesses are out for the main chance. Nonetheless there are lots of gems. Any guide book will steer you to the usual haunts where you will pay dearly to sip an espresso or a bellini (white peach purée and prosecco), but surely its worth the exorbitant price to sit at the Florian or Quadre Cafes in Piazza San Marco to listen to the strains of Vivaldi or Puccini being played by the orchestra.
A bellin or martini at Harry’s Bar is also a must do. Sip it slowly, enjoy the ambiance and watch the buzz at the bar where head waiter Claudio Ponzio has been mixing cocktails for over 30 years. Many of the old reliables feel tired and dull, but not so Da Fiore which rightly deserves its reputation as the finest restaurant in Venice. You’ll need to book well ahead to taste Maurizio and Mara Martin’s sublime food. No twiddles and bows and smarties on top here – just exquisite fresh fish simply cooked, a triumph of ingredients. Don’t miss the puds or artisan cheeses either. Superb wine list to complement the menu, a worthy recipient of a Michelin star which not everyone agrees can be said for the Met where chef Carado Fasolato serves an experimental cuisine with diverse influences from Gaultiero Marchesi to Ferran Adria.
For traditional Venetian food book a table at the deservedly hyped Osteria ? or Alla Testiere. The latter has just six tables and the menu changes daily depending on the market finds.
Some new hot spots worth checking out are La Naranzaria where Stefano Monti gives his Japanese chef carte blanche to create a fusion of sushi and Italian dishes, fun and fashionable with a sunny terrace overlooking the Grand Canal.
Alla Zucca (meaning pumpkin) has an exciting menu of Italian vegetarian dishes as well as some good meat and fish.
The best food in Venice is all about local and seasonal, don’t miss the bustling Rialto Market on the edge of the Grand Canal which has been the city commercial centre for centuries. What was once a bazaar for exotic spices, jewels and silks from the Orient is now a bountiful market teeming with fish and sea creatures from the lagoon and the Adriatic and gorgeous fresh vegetables, fruit and fungi from regions all over Italy, Artichokes and red radicchio from the island of Saint Erasmo, beetroot from Chioggia, zucchini blossoms, bunches of chillies, new season Muscat grapes ……
If you make an early start you can see the motopi (work barges) arriving with the day’s produce (no roads in Venice, everything arrives by boat).
At the fish market I watched the vendors prepare tiny little cuttlefish and save the ink sacs, skin eels, dole out tiny razor shells, soft shell crabs and sea snails and a myriad of the freshest fish I’ve seen in many a long day. Visit before you leave and buy a gorgeous piece of fruit, artisan cheeses and cured meat from the nearby shops to make a picnic for the plane.
Ristorante Da Fiore, San Polo, 2202/A – 30125 Venezia – Italy
Tel 0039 041 721308 www.dafiore.net firstname.lastname@example.org
Butternut Squash Risotto Drizzled with Aged Balsamic Vinegar
From the da Fiore Cookbook by Damiano Martin
Risotto di Zucca e Parmigiano con Aceto Balsamico
Makes 6 first course servings
1 small butternut squash or 1 Kabocha squash (about 1 pound/450g)
¾ cup (6fl.oz) mild oil, preferably sunflower oil
¼ small onion, diced
1½lb(3 cups/700g) Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice
4 pints (2.4litres) hot Vegetable broth*
1 cup (4oz/110g) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Aged balsamic vinegar for drizzling
Trim the ends from the butternut squash. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the skin. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and fibres. Divide each squash half in quarters. Using a knife or mandoline on a fine slicing setting, cut the squash pieces into ⅛ inch thick slices.
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the butternut squash, season with salt, and cover with water. Cook, simmering, until the squash easily breaks apart, about 20 minutes. Stir in the rice, then add a cup of the hot vegetable broth. Cook at an aggressive boil, stirring often, for 8 minutes, adding a cup of broth at a time, as necessary; the rice should almost completely absorb the broth between additions. Add the Parmigiano, stirring to incorporate, then continue cooking, adding broth as necessary, until the rice is al dente and the mixture moist but not watery, about 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter and adjust the seasoning with salt if necessary. Divide the rice among serving plates and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately.
2 celery stalks, halved
2 medium carrots, halved
1 small onion, halved
5 pints (3 litres) water
Combine all the ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain and discard the vegetables. Cool and refrigerate for up to 4 days.
Scallops in their shells with thyme from the da Fiore Cookbook
Cappesante Gratinate al Timo
Coarse salt to line serving plates
18 fresh scallops in their shells
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from 2 thyme sprigs
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons finely ground fresh breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat the oven to 475F/250C/gas9
Line the bottoms of 6 serving plates with ½ inch coarse salt. This will create an attractive presentation for the scallop shells and prevent them from sliding on the plate. Set aside.
Using an oyster knife or small, strong (but not sharp) knife, carefully pry open the shells. Run the knife under the bottom shell to detach the scallop. Scoop out the scallop, discarding the white muscles and the dark organs and keeping the orange coral in place. Keep the decorative shells to use as ‘serving dishes’. Thoroughly rinse the scallops of all sand and residue. Pat dry with paper towels and set aside.
Wash and dry the shells. Place on 2 large baking pans. Return the scallops to the centres of the shells. Season the white part with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the scallops with the thyme leaves, lightly dust them with the cheese and breadcrumbs, and drizzle with olive oil. Bake until the tops are lightly brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer three scallops in their shells to each serving plate, lightly pressing the shells into the salt to secure them. Serve immediately.
Pomegranate Sorbet – from Marcella’s Kitchen by Marcella Hazan
Sorbetto di Melagrana
4 large pomegranates, about 1.4kg (3lb)
Yielding about 1.5litres (2½ pints) of juice and seeds
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 or 7 medium-size fresh mint leaves, torn by hand into 2 or 3 pieces each
Remove the pomegranate rind to extract the seeds.
Mash the flesh coated seeds through a food mill fitted with the disc with the smallest holes, collecting the juice in a bowl.
To the bowl, add the sugar, lemon juice and torn mint leaves. Stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. Let the mixture rest for about 30 minutes.
Pour the mixture through a strainer with a fine mesh to separate from it the mint and any tiny pomegranate seeds that may have passed through the food mill.
Freeze in an ice-cream machine, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
Funny how one sometimes forgets a recipe, we hadn’t had these for ages but I remembered them recently and they taste just as good as ever. When we were children we particularly loved fritters because they used to fry into funny shapes, which caused great hilarity.
1 lb (450g) cooking or eating apples
4 ozs (110g) flour
pinch of salt
1 egg, preferably free range
¼ pint (150ml) milk
good quality oil for frying
To make the batter, sieve the flour and salt into a bowl. Make a well in the centre and drop in the egg, using a whisk bring in the flour gradually from the edges, slowly adding in the milk at the same time. Leave the batter in a cool place for about an hour. Heat the oil in a deep fry to 180C/350F/regulo 4.
Peel and core the apples. Cut into rings not more than ½ inch (1cm) thick. Dip the apple rings into the batter, drain off excess and lift out with a skewer, allow any surplus batter to drain off, then drop into hot fat. Don’t put too many fritters into the fat at the same time. Fry until golden brown, drain well on kitchen paper. Toss each fritter in castor sugar. Serve immediately with softly whipped cream. * They can also be shallow-fried in a pan if that is more convenient.
Slow Food Event – Festive Food for Christmas – Cookery Demonstration with Darina and Rachel Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School, Shanagarry, Co Cork on Wednesday 14th November at 7.00pm
€25 for Slow Food members and €45 for non members, booking essential – call Helen on 021-4646785 or email email@example.com
Boyle Rally Festival Plans are well under way for the Boyle Festival, a series of entertainments and exhibitions on Friday, November 16th in Boyle, Co Roscommon, to mark the World Rally Local Stages in this area. The Official Opening takes place at 6pm in The Pleasure Grounds when The Art of Sound, a spectacular Sound & Light Show, takes place. From 6pm-10pm in the Public Car Park, Shop Street, a Micro Cam state of the art 16x12ft Outdoor Screen will be showing rally footage and children’s films. From 5pm-9pm in the grounds of King House and along River Walk there will be a Christmas Market. This outdoor craft market (where the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market is usually held) should have something for everyone. Specialised hot food stalls with a large selection of hot foods made to eat alfresco, including roasted pig on a spit, crepes, wraps, home-made soups, home-made sausages and burgers and lots more, will be lined up along RiverWalk. www.unabhan.net firstname.lastname@example.org