I had a glass of wine in one hand and a cicchetto in the other. A canal was to the left of me and wonderful examples of Venetian Gothic architecture were to the right. I was immersed in an utterly Venetian experience.
This was not my first time in Venice but on this occasion I was alone, without family in tow. My aim was to get past the crowds, the Piazza San Marco and the thousands of masks made in China. I wanted to get a better sense of the real Venice. I wanted to learn about its past and present, how the city developed and what it’s like to live there today.
I only had one day but I accomplished most of my objectives by taking a food tour.
Food is not just about taste. It’s also about history. Taking a food tour through Venice delivered wonderful flavours as well as insights into the city’s past and a glimpse into the Venetian lifestyle today.
Cooking lessons at the Rialto Market
There were three of us on the tour. Our guide, Cristina, was a native Venetian who not only shared her knowledge of the city and its history but also tips for preparing local delicacies.
We started at the Rialto Bridge where she gave us an historical overview of Venice. From there we wandered towards the Rialto Market, stopping along the way at Al Merca for our first glass of wine and a cicchetto. Then on to the market.
At the market Cristina introduced us to a number of fruits and vegetables I had never seen before. She told us how to prepare them and whether her family liked them. She even gave us a recipe or two. I know that I will never again cook my risotto past al dente. If so, I was told firmly, “it must be thrown out to start again”.
Venice history through food
As we wandered the narrow streets of Venice, Cristina often stopped to point out small details that revealed bits and pieces of Venice’s past: street signs, names over the doors of buildings that otherwise seemed quite ordinary, and osterias where famous people once ate. There is history everywhere in this city which, in its entirety, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But her conversation always returned to food and how it was affected by history.
Located at the head of the Adriatic, Venice was a naval and commercial power from the Middle Ages up to the end of the 17th century. As a city state for all these centuries, quite separate from Italy, it was a trade centre between Europe and the rest of the world. Some of the most valuable products to pass through its ports were spices brought to Venice from a variety of cultures.
Stopping into Mascar, the oldest spice shop in Venice, we heard tales of the spice trade and how it made the city rich in money and in flavour. The spices and the people who brought them diversified the cuisine of Venice.
The Life of Real Venetians
Taking a tour with a local in a small group gives one lots of opportunity to ask questions and gain an understanding of their daily life. Conversations about food at home, how it’s bought, who cooks it, and what meals are like can easily expand to discussions about the school system, work opportunities, and the politics of place.
Before parting, I had one final question for Cristina.
So, are you Italian first and then Venetian or Venetian and then Italian?
Without a moment’s hesitation Cristina made it very clear. When someone is from a family that has been established in Venice for multiple generations they are most definitely Venetian first.