This unpublished piece was written to explain how Michelle Lovric came to
write The Remedy, a novel about medicine, bitter and sweet.
always seems to go like this at the moment:
‘So what’s the new novel about? Venice, I suppose?’
‘Yes, Venice. And cake.’
Well, to be
honest, cake and quack medicine. Love and lies too. And there’s a murder.
But the central themes of my novel The Remedy are Venice, and cake.
Cakes spiced for seduction.
Cakes withheld as punishment. Boxes of cakes with hidden letters inside.
Chelsea buns in eighteenth-century coffee-houses. Funeral cakes spurned at
a criminal’s wake.
And, most important of all,
delicate tiny cakes that the Venetian nuns used to hang in the trees of
the convent orchards on days when little girls came to visit. These young
cousins and sisters were thus encouraged to believe that in convents,
almond cakes and fruit jellies grew on trees. How much easier to
lure them into the enclosed life with this sweet bait, than with promises
of a dim afterlife! Too late, one imagines, those innocent girls would
realise that the orchards were out of bounds to novices and that God never
made such trees.
This last astonishing but
true story I uncovered during research into Venetian convents, and it gave
me the idea of a central character whose sweet tooth leads her into all
kinds of trouble.
visitor soon discovers, to their delight, Venice is still a city with a
sweet tooth, and plenty of trouble for the weight-conscious. Six days a
week, from just before dawn, the scent of sugar, vanilla, and marsala
breathes out of the city’s bakeries – and her bars, for Venetians
breakfast on coffee and warm croissants, standing up, on their way to work
produces her own special biscuits, many from the colourful lagoon island
of Burano. Most of these biscuits are dry and not over-sweet, for
Venetians are great dippers. Into sweet Vin Santo wine, or thick
hot chocolate they like to dip their ‘essi’ , shaped like the
letter ‘S’, or baicoli, wafer-thin coffee-coloured squares. Rumpled
brown meringues are called ossi (‘bones’) and flat oval biscuits
are sold sometimes as the tongues of cats, sometimes as the tongues of
mothers-in-law (lingue di gatti, lingue di suocere). My favourites
are ‘kisses in a gondola’, pairs of speckled white meringues bound
together by a stripe of dark chocolate. A lost and lamented pasticceria
near San Tomà used to sell ‘pallone di Casanova’, little balls of
soft chocolate pastry rolled in brilliantly coloured candy sprinkles.
a lifelong devotee of hot chocolate. Venice’s most famous son was not
alone in his obsession. For centuries, hot chocolate has been one of the
supreme Venetian indulgences. Not the insipid milky froth now sold
in fashionable chains of British and American coffee-shops: Venetian
hot chocolate has the consistency and colour of dark mud and a richness
which must be tempered by thick cream. I have tried, but I have never been
able to drink it without closing my eyes.
charms have been serenaded by the city’s creative talent: Longhi painted a
society lady drinking her morning chocolate in bed; the poet Antonio
Sforza wrote an effervescing poem to his favourite beverage, in which he
claimed he would walk three hundred miles barefoot for just a tiny cup of
it, and that he was greedy for chocolate as a pig lusting after acorns.
Sforza concluded that when he died he would like his bones to be ground up
and made into earthenware cups for hot chocolate. ‘Then,’ the poet
observed, ‘I shall be in my beatitudes.’
The modern Carnevale
each February still celebrates hot chocolate with dedicated parties at the
ancient Caffè Quadri at San Marco, costumed revellers sip their chocolate
while nibbling the traditional Carnevale pastries: galani,
crunchy slivers of biscuit, and fritelle, soft oval-shaped
chocolate also plays a part in
one of the most endearing Venetian festivals, that of the Epifania,
on January 6th. Through the morning mists that day appear
improbable silhouettes of men dressed as old women, with carrots strapped
to their noses, poling boats down the Grand Canal. They are racing to
Rialto, some towing a stocking the size of a small whale. On the Riva di
Carbon restaurants serve free cups of hot chocolate and platters of
galani to the waiting crowds. An effigy of the old witch, the
Befana, made entirely from cloves of garlic also appears at Rialto, as
do large lumps of black sugar in the pasticcerie. The legend is
that children who have not been good receive lumps of coal instead of
sweets at this time of year.
A popular song prescribes the
perfect fritelle, the classic Venetian doughnut that is available
for the few blissful weeks of the Lenten period:
It has to be very tasty,
Well cooked and well
Well sprinkled with sugar,
Hot … or cold, as you like
were big business in Venice at the height of her glory. The corporation of
fritelle sellers counted seventy members and each of them was
allocated a district. Sons followed fathers into the profession, which
only a native Venetian might pursue, just like gondoliering.
account of a fritelle emporium compares it to a military barracks.
On one side the men kneaded the dough and on the other they fried it in a
pan mounted on a tripod. Another man stood by armed with a sugar
sprinkler. At the front of the shop was a table on which were laid big
pewter or tin dishes, all polished to a shine and very tastefully
decorated, some filled with pine kernels and grapes, and others with
fritelle and other sugar breads.
Antonio Lamberti (1757—1832)
one of Venice’s best-loved poets, observed
And there is not even one
(Which are called campi)
Where one does not find
A certain stall,
Where they are making
Just one look at which would
breathless with delight …
If you are lucky enough to
come to Venice during the fritelle season, you can still have the
same experience at temporary stalls all over the city. Now you can have
your fritelle plain or studded with raisins, solid or stuffed with
chocolate, zabaione, custard cream. The same stalls usually sell
hot chocolate too. Bars and cafes also keep the fritelle in glossy
pyramids on their counters during the all-too-brief season.
The Venetians have always had a taste for luxurious food. To prevent the
reckless dissipation of the city’s wealth, the Venetian
state was forced
to act repeatedly to curb the sumptuous tastes of her citizens. A special
magistracy of Provveditori sopra la Pompe was established in 1514
to monitor conspicuous consumption. A decree in 1562, for example, forbade
the serving of oysters at private suppers for more than twenty people, and
specified only ‘modest confections’ for dessert. It was at one time
illegal to paint desserts with gold leaf, or to give sweets as gifts
(apart from fritelle and
galani, of course). But, as Venice’s own historians have
continually pointed out, such restrictive laws were completely
unenforceable, and Venetian cuisine became more and more opulent.
One wonders what the Renaissance puritans would have made of the
modern-day Pasticceria Gobbetti by the Ponte dei Pugni. This glorious
institution is famed for its glistening domes of chocolate mousse, without
which it seems impossible to give a civilised dinner party in Venice. In
case you cannot think up an excuse for an entire dome, Gobbetti
little individual mousses and will serve you a glass
of prosecco, a fizzy white wine, to wash it down. And if you just
cannot manage another morsel of chocolate, well then Gobbetti can offer a
crunchy-topped ricotta cake full of liqueur-soaked raisins.