Satisfying my sweet cravings: cookies, chocolate and coffee in Venice
Oh my gosh! Terrible Burin, the wind coming from Siberia has brought an incredible wave of cold and snow to Venice. The atmosphere is strange, it's already March and most people were so looking forward to the upcoming spring that I suppose we weren't prepared for this! The worst aspects have been the freezing wind and the rain that followed the snow, not to mention the drop of temperature and dull sky.
What to do on a situation like this? Considering that my body is craving sugars and fats, I thought we could have a little chat about some of the best sweet treats we can enjoy in Venice, most local, some acquired. After all, there is no better excuse than having to keep yourself warm to eat cookies, cakes and chocolate!
Cookies & Other Sweet Treats
Buranelli: traditional cookies made on the island of Burano that have two variants: the s-shaped esse and the round bussolà, which must be distinguished from the savory bussolà chioggiotti. These cookies were prepared by the wives of fishermen who, having to stay away for quite long periods, had an easy-reach and durable source of food in case of need. Made with flour, eggs, butter and sugar, these cookies are filling and delicious and, like most dry Venetian biscuits, are perfect dipped into a sweet passito wine or a nice grappa.
Zaetti: delicious cookies made with maize flour and raisins. The name derives from the word zalo, meaning yellow in the local dialect, colour due to the type of flour, responsible also for their flakiness. The recipe is quite ancient and, although it has popular origins because this flour was used to feed the poorer classes, the biscuits are enriched by more expensive ingredients like butter, sugar and raisins (often left soaking in grappa). These cookies were made with natural yeast/sourdough and were left to rise for at least 16 hours (before instant baking powder was invented), which means they could not be prepared at the last minute. Available in smaller and bigger sizes, a nicely packed box of zaetti would really make a great gift.
Baicoli: thin dry biscuits that, because they seem to last forever, were an integral part of the food supplies of the Venetian ships, perfect dipped in wine or with a creamy dessert like crema al mascarpone. You can find them in nice tin containers produced by Angelo Colussi depicting a gentleman offering some biscuits to a lady. Mum always gets a tin for her foreign friends because she likes the idea that once the goodies are gone, her friends will still have something tangible to remind them of Venice!
Moro: one of my favourite cookies. Made with pastry, chocolate chips, hazelnuts and covered with extra chocolate. Sometimes it also has candied fruit and hazelnuts. I’m particularly fond of the ones made by Pasticceria Dal Mas and the Crosera bakery. Y U M - Y U M - Y U M !
Baci in Gondola: literally meaning "kisses on a gondola", they are small sweet treats made with two white meringues held together by a little bit of dark chocolate in the middle. A perfect fusion...
Focaccia: the traditional yeasted cake made at Christmas and Easter and now available all year round. With regard to focaccia, the first name that comes to mind to any Venetian is El Nono Colussi, who has been producing it since 1956. I suggest to pop by their laboratory in Calle Lunga San Barnaba and enjoy a smaller focaccina with a cup of coffee. A treat not be missed!
Focaccine: small sweetish buttery sandwhiches, often sold in packs of 3 or 6, perfect as a mid morning or afternoon snack, sliced in half and spread with a little bit of jam or chocolate. These too would make a perfect gift!
Pinza: traditionally prepared for the Epifany, it’s a thick dessert made with maize flour or soaked dry bread, dried fruit, raisins, fennel seeds and sugar. It is very rich in taste and heavy in weight, a small bite will be enough and, to make it perfect, accompany it with a glass of mulled wine.
Raisins soaked in grappa: one of my husband’s favourite, because it reminds him of his dad. You can make them at home simply leaving the raisins soaking in a jar for at least a week or buy them in places like Antica Drogheria Mascari. Many traditional restaurants offer it as a dessert and it’s a great ending to a meal, a real mangia e bevi.
Then, of course, there are many other desserts related the specific feasts, like the fave dei morti and the San Martino, just to mention a few, or the fritole, galani and castagnole eaten during Carnival and the must have Venetian Jewish treats (an evergreen is the Giovanni Volpe bakery in the Ghetto, ideal for lactose-intolerants!).
Of the “imported” cookies, I particularly like the Bucellato, originally from Sicily and made with dried and candied fruit and citrus, the Sant’ Ubaldo, with pastry dough and almonds, and the Austrin Kranz, with chocolate and raisins.
In Venice chocolate was considered an exotic beverage. In 1714 Vincenzo Maria Coronelli, an erudite Venetian gentleman, wrote a guide for foreigner called “Guida dei forestier, per sapere tutto ciò che si contiene di nobile e dilettevole” in which he provided useful tips on where to eat and what to do, a real guide ahead of time. According to him, at the time the best chocolates and coffees were to be drunk in Calle delle Acque, close to the Ponte dei Baretteri. A curiosity is that, in general, most places offering hot drinks were called botteghe delle acque. In 1728 the Florentine doctor Giuseppe Avanzini held a lecture in favour of chocolate, in 1774 Pietro Longhi painted “The morning chocolate” (now at Ca’ Rezzonico) and Carlo Goldoni mentions it in many works.
Venice was one of, if not the, first cities in Europe to import coffee. It was some sailors who brought back to the lagoon big sacks containg coffee beans from one of their commercial travels in the Orient. It is reported that in Venice coffee was sold at incredibly high prices and was looked at as an ingredient rich in medical properties. It was prepared by infusing some pulverized toasted coffee beans. People loved it so much that several botteghe del caffè started appearing around the city. The first one opened in 1683 in piazza San Marco, soon followed by many others. The botteghe del caffè represented an important part of the social life, in fcat they were places of cultural meetings involving people of all (or almost) classes: students, artists, professors and normal people enjoying a drink.
Today it is normal habit for us Italians to sip at least one espresso a day standing in a bar. Venice, due to its dampness, is a particular city and, in order to have a good coffee, it is necessary to regulate the machine all the time!
The last tip comes from my husband. Considering that most of the above mentioned cookies require to be dipped into sweet wine or grappa, you might enjoy a guided tour of the Poli Distillerie showroom in Campiello Feltrina (San Marco)! The Poli grappa is produced in Bassano del Grappa and it is really one of the best in the region!