"Carlo Morucchio/Age Fotostock"
Fishermen trawling the Adriatic off Chioggia empty their net on the deck of their boat.
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Out on Lost Lagoon

Alan Tardi / March 2013

Out of the crumbling Roman Empire, the contours of a city first appeared on islands bobbing amid the fickle tides of the Adriatic before congealing into water-washed Venice the Magnificent closer to shore. Alan Tardi visits this collection of islands called Venezia Nativa, where sea and land provide for the city’s distinct cuisine.

There is no more magnificent absurdity than Venice,” the 19th century Russian author Alexander Herzen wrote in My Past and Thoughts. “To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius.” Ralph Waldo Emerson took a slightly different view, calling Venice “a city for beavers.” Perhaps both are right. But one thing just about everyone would agree on is that there is no place quite like it. The fairy-tale conglomeration of pointed domes and spires known as the Basilica of San Marco seems a dream even when you’re standing right in front of it. Ornate palaces rise up out of murky waters as if gently floating or precariously suspended upon them. The absence of cars is eerie. Water is everywhere; boats glide on oily canals over which arching bridges connect twisting calle into a haphazard three-dimensional maze it’s practically impossible not to get lost in.

The city consists of 118 tiny islands stitched together by more than 400 bridges in the middle of Italy’s largest lagoon. While it might not be the most logical place to build a city, the location does have some strategic advantages. After the fall of the Roman Empire, people throughout the surrounding area fled to the lagoon to escape waves of marauding barbarians; the water functioned as a protective moat while also offering a reliable source of food and ready access to both the mainland and the Adriatic Sea.

But Venice was not born at its present site. The earliest settlements were on islands in the northern lagoon such as Torcello, Burano, and Murano, an area now referred to as Venezia Nativa. Torcello is home to one of Venice’s oldest churches, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, built in 639, and numerous convents, churches, and residential communities are scattered throughout the islands. In the early part of the second millennia, silting turned much of the area into a stagnant swamp, increasing the incidence of “bad air” (mal aria, in Italian) and causing many to relocate south to the collection of little islands now known as Venice. With strong support of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople and its strategic position midway between east and west, Venice rapidly developed into an important trading center and one of the wealthiest, most powerful city-states in Europe.

As Venice grew, the islands of Venezia Nativa were severely depopulated or completely abandoned. Torcello, which had 20,000 residents at its peak in the 14th century, has 30 today. Burano held on as a fishing village, supplying the growing nearby metropolis, and developed an important cottage industry in handmade lace, while Murano became a major center of glass blowing. Throughout this major shift in population density, the lagoon continued to provide a steady supply of food to the people who lived there. And it continues to do so to this day.

The Venetian lagoon occupies a surface area of about 550 square kilometers (212 square miles), 90 percent of which is water. It’s quite shallow; with the exception of manmade navigation channels, the average depth is less than three feet. Being a coastal lagoon, it’s an extremely complex ecological system: rivers from the mainland bring fresh water and sedimentary deposits into the basin (which has historically caused silting) while the Adriatic Sea contributes an abundance of salt water. Constant shifting of the sea tides and subtle underwater currents cause erosion of the unstable land masses. These tendencies—sedimentary deposits and erosion, fresh water and salt water, land and sea—have always existed in a very delicate balance.

Not surprisingly, this environment spawns many unique food products, both on land and in the water, which have long played a central role in the typical cuisine of this area. There are many different types of fish, shellfish, mollusks, crustaceans, and eels, both in the lagoon itself and in the coastal waters of the Adriatic Sea, and they have a reputation of being among the tastiest anywhere. On the open sea, small independent fishermen must compete with large commercial fishing boats, but the small fry have the lagoon mostly to themselves. There are a number of consortia of small fishermen, such as the Cooperativa San Marco, which is headquartered on the island of Burano. Originally founded in 1896, this is the oldest of the lagoon’s consortia and currently has about 150 members.

The activities of these small-enterprise fishermen vary considerably depending on the season and the type of fish, as do the skills necessary to perform them. They typically use brightly colored wooden boats with oars (today, most of them have small motors, too) and a traditional V-shaped system of poles and nets consisting of two or three chambers that is positioned according to the prevailing currents. They usually check the nets once or twice a day and bring their catch to the consortium to be tagged and registered before being brought to market. Placement of the nets is mostly by tradition and collegial cooperation, though disputes can sometimes arise.

Perhaps the most unusual creature of the lagoon—as well as the most specialized and labor-intensive activity of the small-enterprise fisherman—is a variation on the common crab (Carcinus mediterraneus). In the spring and fall, baby crabs are put into wooden-frame boxes with wire-mesh walls and kept suspended just under the water in channels between the islands. The crabs may take a number of different forms, the most prized of which is moeca (or moleca), a tiny soft-shell crab. Twice a day during the season, the fisherman—who in this case is known as a moecante—checks the crabs; those that, according to the moecante, are just about to shed their shells are transferred to another wooden cage and watched closely. They must be separated because they are extremely vulnerable in the molted state and watched closely because, once they lose their shell, they must be immediately removed from the water; otherwise they will begin to form a new hard carapace. The moeche, which have a diameter about the size of a ping-pong ball, must then be immediately brought to market while still alive and consumed as quickly as possible.

Due to the volatility and seasonality of these soft-shell crabs and the labor required to cultivate them, they’re as rare and expensive as they are delicious, and practically unavailable outside the immediate area. One evening last winter, a Venetian friend called me at home in Piedmont, Italy: “I’m coming back tonight. I need to see you: I brought you some moeche; they’re still alive!” After making the drop-off, he insisted I eat them that night. “Rinse them off; pass the live crabs in beaten egg, then flour; sauté them in olive oil, and give them a squeeze of lemon. They’re absolutely fantastic!” I did, and he was right.

A variation of the moeca is called mazaneta, an egg-bearing female, which is usually prepared the same way. Crabs that don’t become moeche are kept for another season or two. After that, as they continue to grow, they become regular crabs (granchio). The skill required to carry out this selection process takes many years to develop and is typically passed from father to son. There are currently about 200 moecante working in the lagoon.

Besides fishing, fish farming, known here as vallicoltura, has been going on in the lagoon for centuries; fish farms were controlled by official regulations as early as 1500 and may even predate the founding of Venice. Today, there are approximately 28 fish farms that cover about 9,000 square kilometers (3,475 square miles), or one-sixth of the surface area of the lagoon. Most of them are located in the northern lagoon near Cavallino and in the south near the island of Chioggia. While most of the farms are private, some are publicly owned and the fish raised in them consist primarily of eels, sea bass, gray mullets, and gilthead bream.

Cuttlefish (seppie) are plentiful in the lagoon, and one of the typical ways to serve them is with pasta or risotto, where the tasty ink sacs turn the dish black. Another specialty of the island of Burano is risotto di gò, a delicate rice dish made from the broth of a spiny, kind of scary-looking little fish called grass goby, or ghiozzo (Zosterisessor ophiocephalus). Schie are tiny gray shrimp that are usually fried and served with white polenta, while razor clams (cannolicchi) and scallops with their roe (cannestrelli) are simply grilled and served in their shells with lemon. Even a clichéd dish like spaghetti alle vongole is given whole new meaning when prepared with the miniature clams called vongole veraci, or caparossoli in Venetian dialect (Ruditapes decussatus in Latin or checkered carpet clam in English), harvested from the bottom of the lagoon, especially in an area north of Burano called Sacca del Monte. (Manila clams, either imported or cultivated in the lagoon, are a less expensive and less tasty substitute for true vongole veraci.) Fasolari (Callista chione), a slightly larger type of smooth reddish clam dredged in coastal areas of the Adriatic, is often used in pasta preparations, such as bigoli (a traditional whole wheat spaghetti) with fasolari and artichokes, cooked with white wine, garlic, and tomato, or baked with seasoned bread crumbs and served as an appetizer. Granseola, a medium-sized crab, is typically steamed, its sweet delicate meat picked out, tossed with lemon, parsley, and olive oil from the Lago di Garda area, and served in its cleaned spiny shell.

While land occupies much less surface area than water in the lagoon, it’s no less unique. The land masses are predominantly flat and composed of a combination of sedimentary deposits (mostly clay and sand) from the six rivers that drain into the lagoon and sand from the sea. Because they’re located at sea level, most of the islands are prone to frequent flooding, which keeps the salinity of the loose soil very high. The lagoon was historically considered the backyard of Venice, and its fruits and vegetables have always been highly prized. “Even the tomatoes from the lagoon taste better than those from the mainland,” swears one Venetian I met in the Rialto market. But certain vegetables have found a special niche.

A type of radicchio with its own Indicazione Geografica Protetta, or Protected Geographical Indication (IGP), takes its name from the island of Chioggia, where it likely originated. Today, while the island remains a major producer, the production zone has spread throughout the lagoon and on to the mainland as well. Besides salads, Chioggia radicchio is also used to make risotto or simply grilled and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.

Another predominately agricultural island called Sant’Erasmo is known as the garden (orto) of Venice and is especially famous for its tiny conical purple artichoke. Besides an IGP designation, these artichokes also have their own Slow Food Presidio. Like the little crabs, this thistle comes in a number of different forms and takes considerable labor and skill on the part of the farmer to cultivate. The very first artichoke to come out from the center of the plant in the early spring is called castraure. When still quite small, it’s cut and sent to market, and is typically thinly sliced and eaten raw, dressed with lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, and parsley. The plant then sends out lateral shoots, which generate artichokes called boccioli and, later, sotto boccioli. These secondary artichokes are usually fried, used in risotto, or braised in teccia (in a pan).

Farmers who cultivate artichokes also grow numerous other kinds of vegetables and, once harvested, they load up their small boat and bring them to market in Venice. In addition to the Rialto and Trochetto markets, a number of enterprising small-scale farmers have also developed a network of direct-to-consumer sales.

The people who originally came to the lagoon seeking refuge from barbarian aggressors could never have imagined that their humble little settlements would grow into a powerful naval republic and baroque metropolis, not to mention a major international tourist destination. From very early on, as the population in the lagoon rose, so did problems, along with attempts—in some cases quite extraordinary attempts—to resolve them, including a series of projects to divert the course of rivers which empty into the lagoon that were undertaken as early as the mid-14th century. Today, with heavy traffic in the lagoon and industrial growth on the mainland, things have only gotten worse. To further complicate the longstanding delicate interplay between silting and erosion, intense extraction of underground water supplies along with the natural shifting of tectonic plates has created (or aggravated) the gradual sinking of land masses in the lagoon, while melting of glaciers caused by global warming has raised the sea level, creating a significantly increasing frequency of flooding known as acqua alta. Venice appears to be sinking at an alarmingly accelerating rate while the sea level is rising.

Now a massive, extremely expensive, and controversial project called MOSE (which stands for Experimental Electromechanical Module) is underway. It involves the positioning of huge underwater panels at the three inlets to the lagoon that can be raised in the event of rising sea levels to prevent flooding of Venice. Perhaps technology, along with stricter regulations to prohibit pollution and overdepletion of limited natural resources, and an end to the extraction of underground water, will help preserve this fragile ecosystem and, along with it, the exceptional food products and culinary traditions that have come out of it.

Very Old Vines

"Alan Tardi"

It’s not just vegetables that the unusual microclimates of the islands favor; the lagoon also has a very long history of viticulture. There’s a monastery in the San Francesco della Vigna section of Venice that dates back to 1253 and supposedly still contains a working vineyard; in the lagoon near Torcello is a small island monastery called San Francesco del Deserto, once known as Island of the Two Vineyards; and there’s another island near Sant’Erasmo called Vignole that’s also called Isola delle Sette Vigne or Island of the Seven Vineyards. Although most of the island vineyards were abandoned long ago, lagoon wines may be staging a comeback. In addition to the many island residents who cultivate grapevines along with fruit trees and vegetables for their own use, there are currently three commercial viticultural enterprises in the lagoon, each with an interesting story.

Sant’Erasmo Orto 2009
“I am like a snake,” says Michel Thoulouze, former television producer and creator of numerous popular programs on France’s CanalPlus. “At a certain point, I shed my old skin and moved on.” In 2000, Thoulouze retired from television and purchased an old farmhouse on a seven hectare (17 acre) property on Sant’Erasmo. “I came here for the view,” he joked in his raspy French-accented voice, “but after I bought this place, one of my neighbors came to me and said, ‘You’ve bought the best property on the island. What are you going to do with it?’” A land survey turned up an old map, which indicated that a vineyard was once planted on this very spot. “Pourquoi pas?” thought Thoulouze. He consulted some friends in France—Alain Graillot, a winemaker in the Crozes-Hermitage area of the Rhône Valley, and Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, who have a viticultural consultation firm called LAMS (Laboratoire Analyses Microbiologiques Sols). “First they told me I was crazy. Then they said it might be possible but only if it was done right.”

A three hectare (3 1/2 acre) parcel was cleared and the soil enriched with a series of cover crops. Three grape varieties were chosen, ungrafted vines were planted in 2001, and an ancient drainage system of small canals and locks was restored. “Drainage is essential,” says Thoulouze. “This is a very unique terroir with sand and clay and lots of calcium from seashells. There’s a lot of saline in the soil, which phylloxera doesn’t like, but it needs to be periodically refreshed. The original winemakers weren’t stupid.” The first commercial harvest took place in 2007. Orto, as the wine is called, is a blend of 60 percent Malvasia Istriana, 30 percent Vermentino, and 10 percent Fiano, and is the only commercial wine vinified on an island in the lagoon.

Golden yellow with amber highlights, Orto has an aroma of caramelized figs and jasmine, with a hit of alcohol mid-sniff. Soft and full on the palate, it opens up to flavors of roasted peach and lemon confit. It’s concentrated and intense, balanced and elegant, with just enough acidity to prevent it from being heavy, finishing with a pleasantly oily, fatty after-taste.   Le Carline Ammiana Santa Cristina 2010
There is an aura of secrecy about this wine and the place it comes from. A church and monastery called San Marco was constructed on Santa Cristina as far back as the seventh century, but when the remains of Saint Christina were brought here from Constantinople in 1325, the name was changed to its present one. From 1452 (when the monks left, bringing the saint’s remains to Torcello) through 1972, the island underwent numerous changes of ownership and periods of abandonment. In 1986, Santa Cristina was purchased by a member of the Swarovski family. Since that time, the island has remained strictly private: visitors are not permitted on the island (unless they are personal guests of the owners); even workers are closely monitored and cell phones and cameras are not allowed.

In 2000, a mainland winery called Le Carline was contracted to purchase the grapes of Santa Cristina and produce a wine from them. According to Daniele Piccinin, the head of Le Carline, the ungrafted vines are a local variety of Merlot and Cabernet (DNA mapping has not been done) and are over 100 years old. The wine, which is certified organic and made in Le Carline’s winery in Pramaggiore, is called Ammiana, the ancient name of the small group of islands of which Santa Cristina is part. Approximately 6,000 bottles are made each year. Garnet red with ruby highlights, Ammiana has an appealing aroma of wild berries and spice (black pepper, cinnamon, and whole nutmeg) with a hint of dried porcini. Medium-bodied with nice balance and restraint, supple tannins show themselves mid-palate along with a bit of black currant and graphite, which is the only thing about this unusual wine that suggests Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Nice acidic grip leads to a very graceful finish with a refreshingly dry, slightly bitter, and even slightly salty, after-taste.

Ammiana is not currently available in the United States; send inquiries to info@lecarline.com.

Venissa Mazzorbo 2010
In 2002, while showing some friends around the lagoon, Prosecco producer Gianluca Bisol “stepped out of the Torcello cathedral and saw grape vines in a lush garden right in front of me. This really caught my attention; I didn’t realize grape vines even grew in the lagoon!” He asked the owner for a closer look and, once inside, asked her what kind of grapes they were. “There were a number of different varieties, most of which I was familiar with. But there was one I had never heard of before; she said it was called Dorona and was an ancient variety indigenous to the island.” Bisol’s curiosity was piqued. Genetic analysis determined it was indeed a distinct variety, and research undertaken by a friend of Bisol’s found mention of a vine in the lagoon named Dorona dating back to the 14th century.

After performing an experimental micro fermentation of Dorona grapes, Bisol decided to take the plunge. He enlisted the help of “wine archeologist” Roberto Cipresso, located an appropriate site in an ancient, long-abandoned walled enclosure on the island of Mazzorbo, and planted a one-acre plot of ungrafted Dorona vines in 2005 while turning the property into a six-suite hotel/restaurant called Venissa. The first commercial harvest took place in 2010. The wine, also called Venissa, was vinified in Cipresso’s Montalcino winery, put in a specially designed hand-blown bottle of Murano glass with a sheet of gold leaf just under the surface, and released in the spring of 2012. A total of 4,880 half-liter bottles and 88 magnums were produced. Venissa is dark gold with a brownish tinge and slightly oxidized. The aroma is of varnish and new leather, with undertones of dried flower petals and roasted peach. It has a full, almost waxy palate feel with a slightly bitter finish. Food brings the fruit and complexity out of this wine and it stands up surprisingly well to spices.