Discovering Venice's Farms: the island of Vignole
Some of you may know I am a big fan of farmer's markets and that whenever I can on Fridays I head to the Lido Coldiretti market, where I always buy my greens from the Vignole stall. Vignole is a small island in the north lagoon about 15 minutes by boat from F.te Nove, it is entirely cultivated and life runs pacifically in total harmony with the natural cycles of mother nature.
One day I asked Riccardo if I could visit their farm and he kindly welcomed me to go any time, so this Saturday I took a vaporetto and met him at the only boat stop on the island. The atmosphere is enchanting and peaceful, with trees, flowers and fruit everywhere. Walking along the canal, we passed in front of his sister's house, where their yellow aprons were hanging to dry in the garden.
The amount of land and vegetables they grow impressed me: it's only 3 of them and they do all themselves! Riccardo explained that they grow with the homeodynamic method, therefore no chemical fertiliser is used and that, anyway, the bigger problem is the birds, especially the pheasants who, when it's very hot, get thirsty and start eating whatever they can very early in the morning. If a plant is attacked by an insect, they just let it go and save the rest, which for them is still a better option than treating the plant chemically.
The first crops were cabbage, zucchini (with their beautiful flowers), apples, quinces, plums of all sorts and broccoli sprouts. There was also a lot of radicchio, the tardive kind. I learned that the colour of radicchio changes with the seasons, so when we move from hot to cold it becomes darker and purplish, while when we pass from cold to warm climate it becomes brighter and green.
I cannot help but admiring the knowledge these people have and the dedication and passion they put into what they do. With regard to fruit, he told me they keep ancient plants and varieties because these result stronger and, even if less appealing lookwise, are able to better defend themselves from possible aggressions. Then he picked a jujube and handed it over for me to eat.
He introduced me to the hens (which are used both to fertilise the land and for eggs), his dog and his cat, hiding behind the cabbages. There were also lots of swallows, busy eating the mosquitos that populate our lagoon in the damper seasons. Dangerous animals than sometimes cause troubles are nutrias, but it's rare to meet them during the day.
There were more fields to see and he was very proud about the artichoke one. Now they are waiting for the cardoons, the last part of the plant (which I loved gratin in the oven with milk and Parmesan) and in winter they will select the best cardoon for the following year's tree.
Just left, lots of fig trees and, again, he picked one and gave it to me! So sweet and juicy...
Not happy enough with the crops, they also have a small beehive and produce honey too! The flavour is sweet but with a slightly salty aftertaste due to the water of the lagoon, delicious. I won't show you all the pictures I took, but they also grow tomatoes, aubergines and peppers (now we are towards the end of the season). Oh, and yes... there's a kiwi tree too, but they don't sell those.
When we passed in front of another field of radicchio he specified they grow different varieties and that, in general, the timing is based on the heat; in fact, seeds germinate at a certain temperature so they have to wait for the right moment; to help me better understand he then showed me the difference between one part of the field where everything went smooth, thus there was no grass (in fact, grass should stop growing) and another part where the temperature was probably too hot thus the grass had grown and they had lost the first picking.
If you think we were done, you got it wrong! You should have seen the pumpkin field, wonderfully filled with flowers, which recall zucchini flower but are more delicate and have more fragile leaves (I suggest to have them raw in a salad). Riccardo knows I adore their pumpkins, less sweet than the average ones and with a perfect texture, so he gave me one to bring home. He said it was small, but it seemed huge to me!
A bee was eating from the pumpkin flowers and everything seemed so very wonderful that for a moment I tried to imagine how it would be to lead that sort of life, full of commitments and hard work but at the same time incredibly comforting.
On our way back we stopped in front of a lock that separates sweet from salty water. In winter when there is a lot of rain the fields get flooded, which is bad on the one side but good on the other, because the soil acquires that particular "lagoon flavour" we like so much. Before accompanying me back to the boat stop, I noticed the bunches of nettles, one of my favourite herbs! Now that I know they have them I will have to go to the Lido on Tuesday (their stall is in Lido twice a week: on Tuesdays and Fridays from 8 am to 1 pm).
The boat ride back to Venice from Vignole is short (see timetables here) and I confess I find it a pity, so wonderful the view of the lagoon, the dark clouds and the Venice skyline in the distance. What I find most astonishing though, is how different these two worlds -central Venice and Vignole- are, separated only by a 15-minute ride...
At the vaporetto stop I had a couple of minutes to breathe in all the peace and quietness of this magical world , glancing ahead of me and trying to decide what to make tomorrow with my pumpkin, whether gnocchi or fritters ... then realising it was so big that I will probably be able to make both and will need to invite friends over to help me finish it!
On the boat mainly locals (youngsters, consider that all the families that live in these islands have a boat not to depend on public transportation), a few curious and adventurous travellers and myself who, like the tourists, was way too busy taking pictures to realise I was about to get back to reality.
From the lagoon's waters you can see small pieces of emerged land, wooden piles used by seagulls to rest and the further islands towards the north. This wilderness is immediately followed by the industrial factories of Murano, the island of glass, the sight of which cause at the same time curiosity and a sort of reverential awe. You should see how stunning these architectures are, really...
On your left, instead, our cemetery: the island of San Michele, where important figures like Igor Stravinsky, Emilio Vedova and Zoran Music are buried and with the first example of early Renaissance architecture in Venice: the San Michele in Isola church, designed by Italian architect Mauro Codussi, extremely important in Venice and author of many towers and churches.
This part of the lagoon is so wonderful that I hope I have been able to make you want to learn more and visit it soon. The whole Venetian lagoon is amazing, every island with its own ancient little world and with its own personality, so don't limit yourself to central Venice but wander, explore and fall in love with all of my city!
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