Point de Venise
By ELIZABETH DAVID MY dear Jenny, No, it isn't a bit of good my trying to tell you about the restaurants in Venice, it's eleven years since I was there, so my information's out Italy? It's only fifteen shillings. Not that it will lead you into any start- ling discoveries, it's so wonderfully cautious that no establishment in the whole country rates more than one star for food, but you have to remember that compared with France, at least as far as price is concerned, a Michelin one-star restaurant in Italy may well be the equivalent of a three-star French one although a lot less pretentious and, probably, rather more congenial. Italian restaurateurs and waiters never boss and bully. They want you to have a good time. If you've ordered something you don't like, they don't take offence when you say so, and don't make you feel you've spat on the Holy Grail as they take it away.
What kind of food to look for in Venice? That question's easier. I never knew Venice really well but I do remember more about' Venetian food than about the food of any other place I've ever been to in the world. Perhaps that kind of blaze in one's memory applies to everything about Venice. If you could spend even a couple of weeks in Venice and not catch a dazzle to last you for several years you'd be a pretty hopeless case.
It's sad that James won't be with you, but if it's any consolation I do really believe that until you go there on your own you never really see for yourself what Venice is like.
Venice is a place, if ever there was one, which demands your entire and single-minded atten- tion, but perhaps you'd better keep that to your- self. The Venetian honeymoon industry wouldn't thank me for putting about rumours to the effect that the whole idea's a mistake and that East- bourne's a better bet. The point is. if you're attending to somebody else all the time you miss things like the Longhi picture of a Venetian fish- porter with a towering and curiously ethereal- looking edifice of baccala balanced on his head.
Only now that I come to be pinned down about this picture and where it's to be found I have to admit that what I remember wasn't a painting at all, it was a live man, on the hoof, a man loafing around by the Rialto bridge in no hurry at all to get anywhere with his package of salt fish, and if anybody goes searching among the Longhis in the Ca Rezzonico they won't find that particular one. They'll find something else though, they'll find when they walk about Venice, provided they don't leave their eyes behind in the picture galleries and palaces, that for 200 years or more the painters of Venice were in the habit of recording the daily domestic life of the people of the Serene Republic in terms of food and wine and cooking pots, dishes and drinking vessels, oil flasks, wine carafes, the shapes of loaves, the colours of fruit and vegetables and fish, so much so that when you're in Venice it seems the most normal thing in the world to emerge from the Accademia and see details from a Tintoretto wedding feast or a Bellini supper at Emmaus
displayed in restaurant and tavern windows (a lot of Venetian restaurants look like ordinary little shops with windows, and the still-lives arranged in them are among the sights of Venice) and recognise that Veronese must have taken his famous green from Venetian artichokes, the elongated kind with violet-splashed outer leaves. Art historians don't tell you this kind of thing and neither do guide-books, they hardly even bother to tell you to go and visit the wholesale food markets which in Italy, to an even greater degree perhaps than in France, are so essentially the hearts of any great town. I see that the new green Michelin for Italy (marvellous value, like all the Michelin green guides,* with good maP5 and diagrams and towns alphabetically listed) does just refer to the Rialto market in Venice. 'The vegetable market (Erberia) and the fish market (Peseheria) on the west bank of the canal are full of life and colour.' Quite so. Only the guide would be more to the point were it to add that if you want to catch the essence of the life and the colour at their most concentrated then it's no good sauntering along to the markets after breakfast when the show's nearly over, you have to go there at four in the morning when the cargo gondolas come alongside and start unload- ing Venice's supply of fish and fruit and vege- tables for the day. Dawn sorties don't suit you, I know that, so if you want to see the market, and you'll be crazY if you don't, you'd better contrive somehow to stay up all night, anyway that's what I did, wandering round the town after a party, tvv° parties, finally drifting from café to cafe, with friends, drinking alternate thimbles of thick black coffee and that stuff the Italians playfullY call Coniac, unttl all of a sudden we 'realised that we were in the middle of the market, hemmed in by banks of vegetables and fruit and stumbling against baskets of freshly silvered sardines and scampi as enticing and pretty as pink camellia. buds, and that all around us Venice had clatterea to life and it was dawn. You know, there are people who can reel you off the names and tbe painters of every picture in every Venetiao church and gallery and palace, and who can evetil walk about Venice all day every day for a wee', without once getting lost. What they can't or t.a` any rate don't tell you is that nowhere in tue world can you see a city coming to life as Iwti, can see Venice come to life in the dawn light ar. the Rialto markets where every species of fish out. of the Adriatic lies shimmering on the quaY arta. where a sole isn't made of old white crickei flannels but of pale lilac silk, and that if you are looking you may see a pyramid of aPric°tbs radiating rose and gilt reflections from a catc,, of red mullet just unloaded from a swaYi" barge, that in the dawn haze which Canaletto Often painted Venetian cabbages are cobalt Wet' Venetian potatoes are primrose yellow, and that down here in the Rialto markets, as well as ai sumptuous Venetian banquets and festivals ark' carnivals, here is where Veronese and Tintoretto and the Bellinis found their colours and their lights. How disastrous really that Proust never [rad.° his journey to Venice. Proust was a night bird! he wouldn't have missed the market, not he, and what marvellous things he would have written * Distributed by the Dickens Press, 4 UPPer Thames Street, EC4. (I5s.) about it, how quick he would have been to perceive its point, he who appreciated so much the forms and colours and textures of food, he Who created the most formidable cook in fiction, and found marvels of fantasy in the ice- creams at the Ritz, he who could write about Chardin's still-lives of pears and kitchen crocks in terms so moving that, through his eyes, we see Chardin's pears and all pears as it were for the very first time, so that even a solitary pear left in the dish on the kitchen dresser is no longer just a sad and sleepy pear picked unripe a thousand miles away and untimely sent on its travels but an object in which Chardin would have found Poetry, which to him would have been as living as a woman, as beautiful as an emerald.'t To how much more intense a degree, in the heightened perception which Venice would have conferred even upon him, would Proust have been empowered to interpret and explain the work of the painters of Venice's heyday. To me it is awful to think that we have missed what Proust could have told us about Giovanni BeIlini's Supper at Emmaus, the three poor small fishes on the plate in front of the Christ, the scraggy chicken in the cooking pot set upon the 'table and the shell-shaped loaf which He holds in His hand and why they are so terribly piteous and so unbearably moving. Who else has ever written so perceptively and so simply about such ' things'?
That morning so many years ago, I now remember that I met Renato Guttuso walking through the bejewelled Venetian market place just after dawn. When I saw him l realised that It was not with my own eyes I had seen that the Potatoes in Venice were unlike any potatoes any- where else, it was simply that Guttuso had shown me for the first time what potatoes look like.
• There were several pictures of his (he is Sicilian not Venetian) in the Biennale that year. The one that had hit me such a crack between the eyes was a picture of a sack of potatoes, some of the potatoes had spilled out of the canvas and were on the ground, on their way out of the canvas, they were so alive they really were quite a worry, they haunted me, those potatoes, they seemed to be so angry. Years later it came to me, that where Chardin put poetry and love into his Inanimate kitchen crocks and fruit and made a half-eaten brioche grow out of a plate like a tree grows out of the ground, Guttuso invests the same kind of objects, an egg, an artichoke, a tumbler, even, so help us, a chianti flask or a basketful of empty bottles with a vitality so Passionate that it is almost a menace, and will engulf us if we don't look out. Once when Guttuso came to London for an exhibition of his Work I asked him what had become of his potato picture, who had bought it or if it was trt a gallery anywhere. Guttuso said he didn't know, he didn't remember much about it at all.
began to wonder if the primrose potatoes were Yet another Venetian hallucination.
Now, look, to tell you something practical, the Place apart from the picture galleries and the market where you'll see Venetian food at its most resplendent is the Fenice Tavern. That's not an hallucination I promise you, and I'm ..,1Eraid the bill will be real enough too, but you'll u- Paying for a sight you won't see anywhere else
BY WAY OF SATNTE-BEUVE. Translated by Sylvia 4ownsend Warner. (Chatto and Windy's, 25s.)
I Duckworth. 21s.
in the world. Tell Alfredo Zoppi I sent you, ask to see his kitchen, and if the old wretch has dared to turn it into one of those preposterous plate-glass neon-lit Milan banks which Italian restaurateurs are so fond of nowadays you can also tell him that I'm on my way back to Venice to wring his neck. What you've got to look at arc his copper cauldrons full of brown beans for soup, his Venetian-red shell-fish sauces for pasta and terracotta fish broths (although Ravenna is really the place for those), then make sure he shows you the pantry and the coils of freshly. made cream-coloured fettuccine drying in shal- low willow-green baskets, and ask if he's got any of his caramelised oranges, they're well worth seeing, they shine like frosted Christmas Tree baubles. A dazzling and festive dish. Zoppi gave me his recipe—like nearly all Italian restaura- teurs, he was wonderfully generous about his recipes. You should look at the ink-fish too, they are so beautiful when they're cleaned and ready for the grill, pearly and translucent like Pied- montcse rice just after you've put it in the pan with butter for a risotto, before you've added the stock.
If you want to taste Italian raw ham at its best ask Zoppi if he has any prosciutto from San Daniele, it's rare even in Italy, but Venice is the place for it. San Daniele del Friuli is in Venezia Giulia, near Udine, the ham they produce there is sweeter, more delicate I sometimes think than even the best from Parma. There'll be wild strawberries, of course, and thank heaven the Italians have the sense not to go sloshing a lot of wine and cream over them although their trick of squeezing a little orange juice over them, just enough to melt the sugar, is a good one. And I remember wild strawberry ices at Florian's which were perfectly marvellous, I .hope they still make them.
You'll find your own way to the less grand taverns of Venice, places like the Peoceto and the Antica Carbonara, where the best bets are the most primitive dishes, if you can needle them out of the menu, things like zuppa di peace (mussel soup) and grancevole (those spectacular scarlet spider-crabs which you see everywhere in Venice and which you eat just plain boiled and cold, with a mayonnaise or oil and lemon) and scampi ai fern i which are nothing but scampi flung on to the grill over a wood or charcoal fire and cooked in their shells (you'll never want another of our poor frozen corrupt-tasting so- called scampi, I can promise you that). Avoid specialities called scampi alla this or that and rite/lo alla the other or you'll simply find you're . back having Sunday lunch in a progressive English country pub, all tomato and brandy and cheese and asparagus tips. Waiter's food, you know what I mean. Another point, very impor- tant. Venice is a place which gives you a thunder- ing appetite, and you've got to eat the food as well as look at it, so if you want to enjoy ii and not suffer from disappointment and frustration you simply must be prepared in advance •fOr it not to taste as beautiful as it looks. Were it to do so, that would almost be a disappointment too, indecent even. Best put Tintoretto's fruit and wine and fish and Bellini's bread and Guttuso's potatoes out of your mind when you sit down in a Venetian restaurant. You can't see the pictures and eat them too.
One other thing, sending you a copy of Osbert Sitwell's Winters of Content.: If you have time before you go, read the Venice chapter. Sir Osbert's story of the telephone pealing for him in the deserted Villa Malcontenta when, as he supposed, not a living soul in Venice knew he was there explains much better than I can the peculiar hallucinatory quality of things that happen in Venice and the effect they have upon the people they happen to.