Beyond the lagoon

Think Veneto, think Venice? Think again. Ernie Whalley forsakes pigeons, gondoliers and Harry’s Bar

Scrabbling with almost indecent haste to arrive at their ultimate destination, the ‘city on the lagoon’, many tourists never get to explore the Veneto. This is a great pity, for the region boasts a wealth of fine cities and towns brim-full of history and art treasures. Consider grand operatic Verona, the setting for Romeo and Juliet; Vicenza, on which Andrea Palladio experimented while he was developing the style of architecture that came to bedazzle the world; fairy tale Soave, a town as well as a DOC wine, Valpolicella likewise. Chioggia – I have never been, but I’ve heard it spoken of as a mini-Venice without the crowds. To the north lies the vast expanse of Lake Garda with its pines and poplars, lemons and olive groves and beyond, the southern slopes of the Alps where, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, they have one of Europe’s swishest ski resorts. Oh, and I’ve forgotten Padua, revered for its Giotto frescoes. And Treviso, my favourite, for the eating at any rate.
The food of the region, while not enjoying the stellar reputation of, say, Emilia-Romagna, is varied and interesting. Venice itself, in its republican days, was home port for a navy of maritime traders. For years Venice, too, was the crossroads of the trading of spices between Europe and the Orient. In the trattoria and streets where the traders met to barter, cooks rapidly became expert at a variety of cuisines and, as cooks will, experimented. From this culinary alchemy came dishes such as ‘riso al cavroman’, where a Levantine method of cooking offal flavoured with cloves and cinnamon, became transformed by some Venetian genius into Italy’s most unusual risotto when combined with Vialone del Nano, the aristocratic rice grown in the southern extremity of the region. ‘Sardelle in saor’ started life as a seaman’s staple of plain fried sardines on a bed of onions. The spiced vinegar, pine nuts and raisins came later.
In April and May the town of Bassano becomes the centre of the universe. For this is the white asparagus season. It all started with a disaster. In the 1500s Bassano was hit with a hailstorm, destroying the crop, forcing the farmers to harvest the subterranean shoots if they were to get any income at all. Upon tasting the asparagus, paper white in colour thanks to sun starvation, the growers were astounded to find how tasty and tender it was and, thenceforth, adapted their cultivation methods to produce the now familiar prized white spears. The rest, as they say…
In Dublin, I lunch with some regularity at Dunne & Crescenzi, alternating, to the amusement of my friends, between the antipasto misto and the bresaola with lemon juice, rughetta and shards of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano. I’ve not yet plucked up the courage to ask Eileen if her bresaola, without doubt the best around, is made from (whisper, whisper) horse; for that’s the beast preferred by Venetians for salting, brining and seasoning with spices before pressing and drying.
Baccalà is a dish made with dried salt cod. Evidence of Venice’s decline as a maritime force is that the cod now comes filleted and pre-dried from Norway’s Loftoten Islands. Fritto di Mare is a forensically-challenging melange of fish, molluscs and crustaceans, deep fried. Polenta is another Venetian staple as are beans and pasta, often eaten combined in the popular Pasta e Fagiole, a thick soup served with a dash of olive oil.
The Veneto, as a wine region, does not share the acclaim of Tuscany or Piemonte. Yet in Valpolicella, skilled producers such as Masi and Zenato are producing ripasso wines and amarones that showcase Italy on the world stage.
One of the glories of the region is the sparkling wine, Prosecco, made primarily in the district of Valdobbiadene. Prosecco is actually the name of the grape that is used to make this sparkling wine, valued for its delicate flavours and charming aromatics, the wine itself is not made in the classic method made famous in Champagne. Instead the Charmat method of tank fermentation is used to make Prosecco so as to imbue the wine with the upfront freshness that many find appealing. I should stress that we’re not talking ‘wedding wine’ here – the best Prosecco producers consistently make classy gear. Foremost among these is Bisol, a family owned company that has consistently explored the potential of the Prosecco grape to the full.
By the 16th century the Marca Trevigiana (the area around Treviso), with its gentle slopes and mild climate, had become the verdant hinterland of Venice; a refuge to which the aristocracy retreated in summer when the stench of the lagoon became unbearable. In that area, the Cartizze district figured among the possessions of Count Pola and the Bisols ere his tenants. However, three centuries were to pass before a scion of the family, encouraged by the stability of the second half of the 19th century, gained the confidence to launch a trade in wines extending beyond the confines of the Valdobbiadene area. However, World War I and the phylloxera epidemic combined to defeat Eliseo Bisol’s attempts to expand.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Desiderio, known as Jeio, took charge of the winery in 1923. In the thirties, he planted new vineyards and drew his children into the property’s operations, assigning each a particular function. Slowly but steadily Bisol grew.
Its success has been gained by a constant emphasis on quality – by diversification through the various terroirs and by specifying lower yields than the maximum permitted by the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene directorate. Bisol was also among the first to use the ‘classic method’ in the production of some of its sparkling wines. It has shown considerable marketing acumen too, particularly in its association with Ferrari. Nowadays, bottles of the sumptuous Bisol Cartizze Spumante (which received a 90 point rating from Robert Parker) are as essential as Michael Schumaker at the victory celebrations of the men from Maranello.
The Superiore di Cartizze are the steepest hills in the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene district, a microzone within the zone; its slopes deliver the most intense and complex flavours. Bisol’s Cartizze Spumante is the colour of pale straw and, when tasted in March, was found to exude a myriad of tiny bubbles with aromas of white peaches, violets and carnations combined with a subtle biscuit yeastiness. Full-flavoured with an extended finish the fruit /acid balance was absolutely spot on, making it, in my opinion a great wine to drink with seafood and poultry as well as a celebratory tipple for the tifosi. Bisol’s Crede is higher in acidity and hence lighter in body, altogether cleaner and crisper – a Granny Smith to Cartizze’s Cox Orange Pippin wouldn’t be a bad analogy. The Vigneti del Fol is altogether rounder, perhaps more traditional in style – anyhow it makes a good base for the legendary Bellini. It would also go well with the aforementioned bresaola, the full monty Veneto style preferably. Anyone got John Magnier’s number…?