Veneto is the second region we've gotten into and, as one would expect, there are several interesting things to know about it. It is one of the largest and richest regions of Italy with over 5 million inhabitants and the Dolomoti Mountains are a dominant part of the landscape. Veneto is plentiful in unsalted water which makes for terrific agriculture. Veneto was primarily under Roman domination with influence by the Barbarians and Germans. Metaphorically speaking, Veneto is said to have its head in the mountains and its feet in the water of the Po River. Territory and geographical location have a strong influence on the agriculture and food industry, as well as on the cultural tradition. Venice is known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic" and it is also called the "bridge to the Orient" because of its commercial traffic to the east. Until 1796, Venice was one of the most important republics in Italy.
Principal ingredients in Veneto are polenta, beans, cod and rice. Originally, polenta was prepared with spelt, emmer, buckwheat and legumes. After the discovery of America, yellow corn flour was first adopted in the Polestine area and then became popular throughout the region. It was actually adopted, though not accepted, by the poor because it was simple to cultivate yet they were forced to eat only this food because of their means. Sadly, pellagra disease developed due to the exclusive use of polenta creating a vitamin deficiency. It was destroying peoples' livers and resulting in death across the area.
Beans arrived in the Belluno area around 1530 from the four of Spain. In reality, the introduction wasn't easy because of the beliefs about the low digestibility. It was ultimately accepted because it allowed for intercropping with other cultivations. Beans actually fix nitrogen into the soil which corn plants would absorb.
Baccala, or cod, is a large part of the Veneto cuisine. Cod itself is called baccala but the actual 'baccala preparation' is dried cod that is decapitated, gutted and stored in barrels of salt. Stoccafisso is a cod that's dried naturally by air and on sticks. Both are eaten regularly across the entire region. An interesting sauce, associated with the poorer classes, that's used to preserve fish, is called saor sauce and it's made with fried onions, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins. Pig farming is quite important too throughout Veneto and a rich prosciutto is produced there called berico-euganeo. Sheep meat is also popular and often eaten smoked using juniper and beech wood, seasoned with only salt and pepper.
One of the Venetian traditions that I found so neat is called 'la chiamata di marzo' which takes place on the last Sunday of February. All of the people of the mountains descend that day banging pots and pans so as to wake up the dormant spring. I just thought it was fascinating and I tried to imagine being a part of something like that. It must be something to experience it.
To bring Veneto to us by way of cooking, we had the pleasure of spending the day with Chef Enzo De Pra of Dolada Inn and Ristorante. He was really a neat man, so lively and spirited. He also took time to really explain things to us, even if it was in Italian:
What I found to be truly awesome about him is that, even after so many years of traditional cooking, he has embraced the movement toward a more vegetarian cuisine. Although the food of the mountains is rich in meat and cheese, he has taken on the understanding and importance of adjustment when it comes to a deeper focus on vegetarianism. Old school Italian guys aren't exactly known for embracing change, especially when it comes to their recipes, but Chef De Pra has done some really terrific things to showcase his ability to adapt. One of his recipes was classic minestrone soup yet, even with using all of the same ingredients, he focuses a bit more heavily on the greens and actually blends some of the fresh spinach and swiss chard together to create a thickener and beautifully colored soup:
I thought that was just awesome. A classic Italian recipe, revamped and escalated, not to mention delicious. His other dishes were fresh, yet rustic, and true to the roots of what he's known for many years. He worked closely with Gualtiero Marchesi, the famous chef who founded the school here in Italy who's known for taking Italian cuisine to a totally new level in terms of plating. He's the man who has taken a regular old Italian recipe and just twisted it into something gorgeous without ever changing the ingredients. An example was the white coffee mousse that he and Chef De Pra actually created together! It was such a cool idea. They infused the milk for the mousse with tons of coffee and then it gets strained out, keeping its white color, and it's a play on having a cup of coffee:
Cute that he serves it in an espresso cup. It was super fun to see this older man be so playful with food at his age and create new ideas out of old traditions. I really enjoyed this demo and what Chef De Pra brought to the table, literally and figuratively.