Talking Venetian Snacks with Emiko Davies
Emiko Davies gets eaten out sardinian in saorhis favorite Venetian cichetti – the small snacks served in the many bars of the Italian city – sound like a particularly delicious taste of history.
“Sardinian in saor are never missing in a Venetian bar,” says the Italian-based Australian-Japanese food writer and photographer, speaking to SBS Food on a long-awaited visit to Australia.
“It’s like a kind of sweet and sour topping with raisins and really, really slow-cooked onions for sweetness, and then you have vinegar, and you pour that [the sauce] over fried fish and it keeps really well – you can eat it a week later and it’s even more delicious than the first day you made it,” she says. (Try her recipe here).
This sweet and sour sardine dish, which dates back to the 1300s, is one of many recipes included in Davies’ new cookbook, Cinnamon & Salta wonderfully varied book, beautiful and full of anecdotes about cichettithe sweet and savory bites and small dishes, from fried cheese to humble bread pudding, that are a key part of the Venetian way of life and central to Davies’ love for this watery Italian city.
“I’ve been going back and forth from Venice since I moved to Florence, it was in 2005. And I’ve spent quite a bit of time there. I even did a four-week internship there. But I only ate at the restaurant twice. When I go to Venice, I only eat cicchetti and I love so much that I can try lots of different things and do it like the Venetians. So I kind of follow the example of my friends. They take me to a cicchetti bar and when you move on and on there’s always a lot of good things to try in each baccaro – these are the cicchetti wine bars. And I like that, because you get a little bite here, a little bite there. You can try so many wonderful things this way,” she says.
And it’s a one day adventure.
“I think something that makes it different from your usual Italian aperitivo or, like Spanish tapas, which are usually an evening activity, in Venice, cicchetti are appropriate any time of the day,” says Davies. “So you can go there in the morning, you know after maybe visiting the market. You did your shopping at the Rialto market and you picked up some fish and vegetables then you jump to the nearest baccaro … so it is quite appropriate to do it in the morning, mid-morning, evening, afternoon, mid-day. It’s like a way to take a break, like going for a coffee, but it’s also a way to meet people, to meet people, to see them and to catch up with friends for a bit. So it’s very laid back and anytime of the day.
The recipes in Cinnamon & Salt reflect the wide range of flavors and ingredients that appear in cichetti – which in turn reflect the rich history of Venice. “Venice cuisine is quite unique on the Italian peninsula,” Davies writes in the book. “Refined, yet simple, it has origins that carry the legacy of the immense wealth and cultural influence of the Republic of Venice. Foreign ingredients like sugar from Syria and Egypt, dried fruits, citrus and fried sweets from Persia, spices from India and Indonesia, then later Norwegian stockfish, corn from Central America and turkey coffee, all have become part of Venice’s indispensable pantry…yet at the same time, the cuisine relies heavily on the fresh and excellent yet humble ingredients that the lagoon environment and countryside surrounding offer every season.”
Humble ingredients are at the heart of another of Davies’ favorites, the pinza di pane – a bread pudding sprinkled with dried fruit which she says is perhaps one of the oldest recipes in the Venetian dessert repertoire. “It’s a recipe that’s kind of recycling whatever you have on hand, really,” she says – as the pinza in the book uses bread, polenta is also common, and plain flour and buckwheat are also used. Her version uses dried figs and raisins, lemon and orange zest, fennel seeds, and a sprinkle of grappa (you can also use rum or white wine), creating a dense and delicious pudding.
Another classic from the dolce e bevande (sweets and beverages) is bussolai, rich butter ring or s-shaped cookies. Like many recipes, these have a long history – the original bussolai, originating on the island of Burano, she explains in the book, were made from bread dough and baked until they were dry and hard, and lasted for months. The modern sweet version is often served with a glass of sweet wine. “For me, it’s a very natural way to end a meal, to take the bussolai and dip them in wine. And they are very nice like that. But they are also delicious at any time of the day with a coffee or just a small snack. Very very nice. They aren’t too sweet, so you can pick them up any time of the day.
Seafood features in many recipes, including this wildly popular sardine dish discussed above (if you’re not a sardine fan, good news – Davies says the sweet and sour sauce goes just as well with scampis, chicken or vegetables “it’s really good with pumpkin and aubergine”) and another that caught our attention because it uses a canned fish that is often overshadowed by the ubiquitous tone: Crostini con sgombro, olives and pinoli (Crostini with mackerel, olives and pine nuts). Turns out it also reflects a key piece of Venetian history.
“All canned fish and all canned fish are actually very important in Venice. I always found it curious because Venice has such an abundance of fresh seafood, being right there on the lagoon,” Davies says. “But despite that, canned fish, like baccala and stockfish and canned tuna and smoked herring, these are things you find in every wine bar and even in restaurants… so when you think of the he history of Venice, you are a sea place where people used to go on boats for a long time and needed food that would not be perishable, or at least would last for a while, so canned fish is starting to make sense .
“Tuna, tuna is loved. And you’ll find tuna in all sorts of forms in Venetian wine bars, often on crostini… so this one with mackerel is a variation – you can use tuna too. Personally, I find mackerel so much tastier than canned tuna. I love it. I still have a can of mackerel in my pantry, that’s how it ended [in] the.”
Cicchetti can be a snack or the base of a meal; one that seems likely to be part of many meals is the potato alla Veneziana (Venetian Potatoes – browned buttery potatoes with caramelized onion), which Davies says are just as delicious hot as they are cold the next day – and a favorite of the book’s recipe testers.
“A lot of people have chosen the Venetian potato and they all said it was something that was part of their regular rotation. It is so good. It is a very good alternative to roast potatoes.
Some of the recipes are closely tied to Davies’ memories of the city, such as the rose petal jam recipe inspired by the time Davies spent, as a fine arts student, working in the Armenian monastery of Venetian island of San Lazzaro. One of her favorite parts of the day, she explains in the book, was breakfast, where the fare included their famous rose petal jam. Others are inspired by his many readings. She created her tempting tondini di formaggio recipe after reading about these fried cheese rings (they can also be baked) in a book by food writer Mariù Salvatori de Zuliani.
Classic and modern, sweet and savory, simple and refined: the many types of cicchetti from Cinnamon & Salt represent the multifaceted nature of Venice itself.
In the book’s foreword, Rosa Salzberg, associate professor of Italian Renaissance history, writes that Venice has “much to teach us about the pleasures of a life lived on foot…about maintaining strong traditions community and neighborhood ties while also remaining open to the world; stopping to appreciate daily rituals and rhythms and finding beauty in everyday life”.
Davies, too, sees the city that way.
“Historically, of course, this has always been something that I think sets Venice apart from so many other great cities around the world. It was a very open city. All kinds of people have been there, but when you think about it, even today, it’s still Venice. You know, it’s really a very small town, with a kind of smaller population every year. But millions of people from all over the world pass through Venice. Enjoy Venice. See it. So it’s still kind of a city open to the world.
For now, Davies is enjoying a different part of the world. Plans to visit Australia were put on hold at the height of the pandemic, but she and her family eventually made it through. After a busy time in Victoria for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and a few weeks in Canberra visiting family and friends, his last stop will be a visit to Sydney to film for Cooking with Adam Liaw. “It will be really fun!” she says.
Images from Cinnamon & Salt by Emiko Davies (Hardie Grant Books, RRP $40). Available in stores nationwide.