Veneto: A Cookbook That's Worth Your Time
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Veneto, not Venice, that’s the first thing to notice about Valeria Necchio’s cookbook. This is no whirlwind, package tour of the tourist hotspots, no hectic sprint past the Rialto fish markets or manic gorging on sugar-dusted Carnivale treats. Veneto, subtitled Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen, is all about taking the back roads to the provincial farmland, slowing down, and smelling the pancetta. Valeria Necchio describes the home-cooked meals of her childhood as honest, and that honesty is conveyed in her writing. She doesn’t attempt a hard sell. She writes with restrained, typically Venetian, elegance of her memories associated with each dish. The food she leaves to speak for itself.
Italian cooking remains almost obsessively regional. The Veneto, which retains its own Venetan dialect, is perhaps one of the most distinct regions. The culinary accent of the Veneto favours polenta over pasta, Grana Padano cheese over Parmesan, and fresh tomatoes over rich tomato sauces. Duck and local breed chickens are a speciality of the region. Almonds abound and fresh ricotta cheese does double duty as a basis for both savoury and sweet dishes.
Veneto is certainly a regional cookbook but Necchio is careful to point out that this is a collection specific to her family. There are, of course, recipes rooted in the region but also those dishes which simply belong to the Necchio family repertoire. There is a sense of privilege in reading this book. Necchio is sharing, not showing off, but the justifiable pride she takes in her heritage is clear to see. Veneto is a tribute to Necchio’s place and people, to the strictly adhered to traditions of her Nonna and the culinary rebellion of her mother.
The recipes are divided between three sections: Then, Now and Pantry.
Then is a collection of time-honoured family recipes from the generations past, as well as some iconic Venetian dishes. Staying true to her heritage, recipes are listed in the Venetian dialect so that frittata becomes fritaja, tagliatelle taiadele and radicchio radeci.
It’s easy to forget just how poor the rural regions of Italy were in the last century. Cucina povera was the order of the day. Meals were simple and they were thrifty. A plate of tiny fried shrimp constitutes an antipasto dish. The traditional Saint Mark’s Day Fritaja is a celebration of wild herbs available to foragers in Spring. Similiarly, a typical polenta dish is embellished with wild mushrooms and a risotto with wild hops. Iconic to the region, of course, is Risi e Bisi, the simple combination of rice and peas.
A little meat was made to go a long way as in the Bigoli with Duck Ragù. Necchio gives instructions to simmer duck bones to make a stock which is used, in turn, with a little white wine, to slowly cook the meat, allowing it to reduce to an oily sauce packed with flavour. Bigoli, imagine very fat spaghetti, was too specific a pasta request for my local Italian deli, but they recommended bucatoni as a reasonable alternative. Either way, my family sucked this up and begged for more.
Time is a vital ingredient in Necchio’s cooking. Tomatoes with Garlic and Basil could hardly be called a recipe and yet, given an hour to marinate in a warm kitchen, this is a plate of food good enough to make your taste buds sing an aria.
Polenta and again, time, in this case an hour spent resting in the fridge before baking, makes Sbrisolona the shortest, crumbliest almond shortbread you can imagine.
The second section, Now, gathers the recipes and ideas Necchio has developed since leaving her home. She moved first from the countryside to the university city of Padua where she cooked and entertained on a student budget. Hard-boiled eggs with anchovies are, as Necchio writes, ‘silly easy and plain delicious in their simplicity.’
The student chef used time, that cheapest of ingredients, to season her food. The Gallina Ubriaca, drunk hen, is simmered in a whole bottle of red wine before being permitted two hours to recuperate into a mellow casserole.
From Padua, Necchio left the Veneto to take a masters in food culture at the prestigious University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont. Since then, four years living in London have forced her to adapt somewhat to a new speed of life but she remains bound to her Venetian roots.
She confesses a nostalgic attachment to Insalata di Riso, the rice salad so typical of Venetian sea-side resorts, and I admit that the taste of canned artichokes and Asiago cheese brought me straight back to a deck chair on the beach at Sabbiadoro.
Prawn and Prosecco Risotto is the result of a husband encouraging liberality with the bottle:
Sweet vapours swirled up, and somehow, in the haze of the moment, I saw that it was the start of something good.
Baked sea bream, Orata al Forno, similarly steaming vapours of white wine and lemon, evokes memories of summer nights in her parent’s garden. Leafy greens, combined with pine nuts and raisins, make a surprising but delicious contorno.
Necchio’s dolci are simple but good. Raspberries with rosé wine or lemon sorbet with Grappa are sure-fire hits. Buttery baked peaches with mascarpone couldn’t be simpler.
Ricotta pudding, bound with ground almonds, looks plain but satisfies.
The perfect Venetian meal ends with a short espresso and the sweet, slightly chewy, almond hit of Amaretti Morbidi.
The third and final section, Pantry, honours the tradition of preserving the finest produce of the season. Recipes include White Asparagus in Oil, Pickled Vegetable Medley and Grappa-soaked Cherries. Given that I am nurturing a juvenile fig tree (just twenty-two figs this year) and a sapling quince tree (nary a flower nor a fruit on it yet), I am crossing my fingers that I shall have recourse to the recipes for Green Fig Jam and Quince paste.
Reading and cooking from Veneto has been a trip down memory lane to the three years my husband and I lived as newly-weds in Padua. We have revelled in this excuse to sip Aperol Spritz, Padua-style, and have indulged in more than the strictly necessary quota of Prosecco. This was not work but a gift and I am grateful.
This is not a book of fast food, though most of the recipes are simple and many are quick. This is a book about placing value on food, respecting it and treating it with care and attention. Italians are fond of the phrase ne vale la pena, it’s worth it. If you want a real, honest, taste of home-cooked food, anchored by regional ingredients and soaked in centuries of tradition, try Veneto. It won’t disappoint.