Sweet Venice

























This unpublished piece was written to explain how Michelle Lovric came to write The Remedy, a novel about medicine, bitter and sweet.

The conversation 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.

As any 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 each day.

Venice 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.

Casanova was 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.

Naturally, chocolate’s 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 doughnuts.

Hot 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 raised,
Well sprinkled with sugar,
Hot … or cold, as you like it.

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.

An eighteenth-century 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 little square,
(Which are called campi)
Where one does not find set up
A certain stall,
Where they are making
Those venerated fritelle
Just one look at which would make you
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 thoughtfully provide
s 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.










For those of us who live nearby one of the saddest closures in Venice last year was that of the Marchini pasticceria in the narrow alley between Santo Stefano and San Maurizio. All is not lost, however: first of all, part of the old shop has now become a mini-offshoot of Gobbetti, and better still, Marchini still have premises at San Marco (Spadaria) and near Rialto. Marchini is nearly half a century old. Its owners, the Vio family, are proud of their ‘golosessi’ (very greedy) range of handmade cakes, revived from ancient regional recipes. These include their beloved tondi con le mandorle (almond rounds), the zaleto and most of all the ‘torta del doge’, a solid nugget of raisins, pine-nuts, walnuts, all perfumed with rum. Every cake in Venice tells a story: there is also one ubiquitous sweet left over from the nineteenth-century reign of the Austrian empire in Venice: apple strudel.

The healthy option for the sweet-lover is fruit, and Venice is bursting with colourful displays of it. Products that come from the orchard islands of the lagoon are always proudly labelled ‘nostrani’ – our home-grown. And the early riser in Venice will see barges towering with nostrani  arriving down the Grand Canal every morning (except Sunday). Fruit can be bought not just at the famous Rialto market but also at the equally beloved and picturesque barge moored in the canal at St Barnaba. The boat sells vegetables, but a busy stall beside it sells the best of seasonal figs, grapes or melons. (If you come in September do not miss the fragola (strawberry) grapes – intense globes of sweetness inside a strong-tasting skin). The Venetians have always loved anguria or watermelon as a refreshment. Thin slices were served in the noblest parlours – in the absence of any more robust food – as several Grand Tourists observed disapprovingly. But Thomas Coryate, the irrepressible seventeenth-century visitor, was an enthusiast of watermelon: ‘it hath the most refridgerating vertue of all the fruites of Italy.’ However he warned travellers to beware of consuming too many of the other kinds of melon: ‘For the sweetnesse of them is such as hath allured many men to eate so immoderately of them, that they have therewith hastened their untimely death …’

In Coryate’s Crudities: Hastily Gobbled up in Five Months Travels, the writer was most impressed with ‘the marveilous affluence and exuberancy of all things tending to the sustentation of mans life’ in Venice, particularly amazing in a city lacking arable land. Coryate noted that even the noblest of Venetian men did not scorn to purchase his own victuals from the stalls at Rialto. Indeed it was a tradition for aristocratic all-night gamblers to stop off among the floating fruit stalls at Rialto at dawn to buy some grapes on their way home.

Meanwhile, those cake-loving nuns in Sant’Alvise and other nunneries were busy baking up treats for themselves. Convent records of the Renaissance show that the nuns consumed an incredible amount of sugar per head. Mary Laven’s fascinating book, Virgins of
Venice, explains how nuns kept personal chickens for eggs, and they also ordered unusual quantities of almonds and spices. Nuns in Venice held cake parties in their laundries and supplied birthday sweetmeats for their high-born cousins. At Santa Maria delle Vergini, the excesses of baking put the convent into financial difficulties.

When the Italian convents first became enclosed, a strange expression became widespread. 
Aut maritus, aut murus, ran the Latin epigram – ‘If not a husband, then a wall’. Female appetites were thought to be insatiable unless supplied or governed by a husband. Without a man, a girl would need a convent wall to enclose her. Most of the Venetian convents were populated by noble girls who had been placed there to save money: better to concentrate the family wealth in a significant dowry for just one sister who could make an advantageous match. Convents in Venice asked a ‘dowry’ for the brides of Christ too, but it was a thousand ducats compared to 30,000 for a noble husband. It seems likely that very few of the nuns were there because of true vocations. How much did these enclosed women sublimate through their carbohydrate rushes?

Sugar was not enough for some nuns. They escaped by night and enjoyed both adventures and long-term romances. Or men found their way over those convent walls.
Wayward nuns did for free what courtesans performed for large sums of money, and often they had the added allure of noble blood, always potent in Venice. The convents were able to cover their production of illegitimate babies by doubling as foundling sanctuaries. In my second novel, The Floating Book, I took up the true story of one Venetian nunnery, Sant’ Angelo di Contorta, that had 52 prosecutions for lewd behaviour in the fifteenth century alone. It was eventually disbanded. Napoleon closed down the other most notorious convent, that of San Zaccaria. Today, ironically, it is the provincial headquarters of the Carabinieri. When I obtained permission to look inside it, while researching another wayward nun for The Remedy, I was escorted by a Colonel in full military uniform. (Although the Colonel was impeccably charming, this somewhat intimidating experience made it considerably easier for me to imagine my heroine imprisoned there against her will.)

Not all the nunneries were porous to vice. Some, like Sant’ Alvise, were saintly places – and
Sant’ Alvise, unlike most of the old nunneries, is still a convent, today inhabited by just 23 white-clad sisters of the Canossian order. If ‘dressed adequately’ a modern visitor may enter at will among the echoing corridors of cells and the gardens. The brick cloister is these days enclosed in glass and part of the convent is now run as a school. The atmosphere is peaceful and friendly. When visiting the nunnery last year, I asked the kindly nun if they still made cakes. She smiled and nodded. ‘For the children,’ she said.

A spoonful of sugar, as the song goes, helps the medicine go down.

My novel The Remedy features other, nastier cakes too. Cakes of sugar infused with crushed millipedes and Venetian treacle (an expensive drug confected of dozens of ingredients, including viper) – these were the kind of medicines peddled by the theatrical quack doctors of La Serenissima and London, among whom my heroine eventually makes a living. The eighteenth century was no time to be sick. Even the respectable apothecaries swore by ingredients such as peacock dung and earthworms. 

There’s an old Venetian proverb: If your mouth is full you can’t say no.

But I don’t think that would stop me refusing an Expression of Millipedes Simple, no matter how much sugar and white wine were beaten into it …


Copyright ©Michelle Lovric 2006

Illustration by Michelle Lovric

For permission to use this extract please contact Victoria Hobbs at A.M. Heath www.amheath.com


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