Venice, the spices and a vegetarian curry recipe
Autumn has officially arrived. The sun is shining, the wind is blowing, the leaves on the trees are turning brown and the evenings have started to become chilly. The sort of weather that calls for lazy evenings at home and hot, soothing food, just like the vegetarian curry I made for dinner.
One may object that curry isn't exactly a traditional Venetian recipe, but actually Venice has a long tradition of spices. In ancient times, spices were considered rare and precious, and by the end of the middle ages, most of their trade passed through Venice. Spices, in fact, were sold in Rialto by banker merchants under the surveillance of what were called 'messeri del pepe', and sometimes would even replace money as form of payment. The use of spices increased during the Crusades, applied both to add flavour and to preserve food. Many medicine books and cookbooks of the time dedicated at least a couple of pages to describe the properties of spices and provide directions on how to use them in the kitchen. Venice, after years of conflicts and battles with the other Maritime Republics, established its leading position in the commercial exchanges with the Orient especially during the time of Marco Polo, and controlled the spice trade for over 130 years.
The commercial decline of Venice, with specific regard to spices, is traditionally associated with the agreement made between Vasco da Gama and the sultans of Cochin Cananor in Calicut (Kerala, India), which guaranteed the supply of the most precious varieties of spices to the Portuguese merchants, making Lisbon the new capital of this trade.
About two centuries earlier, in his book Il Milione, Marco Polo described the many silk and spice merchants he, his uncle and his father met along the way that led them to the Gran Khan in China. They returned to Venice from that journey after 25 years, in 1295, with many riches and treasures, and also with lots of stories to share. The book was probably written by Rustichello da Pisa when they were both imprisoned by the Genoese, after Venice had lost the Battle of Curzola (1298). It is supposed that the original title was different and that it became Il Milione, which literally means a million, because after a while, Venetians got used to and also kind of tired of hearing Marco's million stories. Anyway, the house of the Polo family is still one of the most visited attractions in Venice.
If arriving from Rialto, to reach the house you'll first cross the smaller Corte Prima del Milion, and then arrive in Corte Seconda del Milion. Although we tend to associate the name to the book, Milion probably refers to a member of the Polo family called Emilione. The facade we see today is not the original one and, in general, the area underwent important renovation works at the end of the 19th century to create space for the Malibran Theatre. In the square, there is a lovely portico, when you go take the time to notice the beautiful medieval arches decorated with natural motifs.
As for myself, I always buy my spices from Mascari, in Calle degli Spezieri in Rialto. The quality is excellent, the perfume intense and the colours vivid and every time I go, I cannot help but admire their lovely windows. The spices are on the left window, organised elegantly and symmetrically. The value for money is very good and often, I also buy dried fruit and wine. When it comes to 'exotic' products, in fact, I prefer to purchase from trusted businesses. With regard to coconut milk and other Asiatic food products, you can find them in Venice at Pastificio Giacomo Rizzo, in Salizada S.Grisostomo (close to Marco Polo's house), at the discount shop in P.le Roma (after the car park) and at most organic stores. I buy it either at Serenissima Bio or at NaturaSi, I get the small can (200 ml) of Rapunzel Kokosmilch, which I find enough if I'm cooking for two, but they also have bigger cans (400 ml).
Unfortunately I am not an expert spice user, but if there is something I love, it's a good rice curry, so I have learnt to master it! I made a sweet base with onions, chopped apples (which I sometimes replace with pineapple, fresh or under syrup), chilli and garlic and then added broccoli, aubergines and zucchini, all from Vignole. I like to feel the nutty flavour and sweetness of the coconut milk, so it's intense, but not overwhelming (if you'd like it to be very spicy, I suggest to add more curry/chilli).
Simple, healthy and easy to prepare, this vegetarian curry tastes delicious and I hope you will enjoy it too!
VEGETARIAN RICE CURRY
with broccoli, zucchini and aubergines
Prep. Time: 10'
Cook Time: 40'
180 gr brown basmati rice
1/2 green apple
2 garlic cloves
2 dried chillies
2 small zucchini
1 small broccoli
2 small aubergines
1 can coconut milk (for cooking)
2 spoons of curry powder
1) Bring a pot of water to a boil, add a pinch of salt and pour the rice. Let cook for the time indicated on the pack (usually 35/40')
2) Peel and roughly chop the apple and the onions, heat a shallow pan, pour a few drops of oil, add the crushed cloves of garlic, the chopped chilli and after about a minute add the sliced apple and onion and let simmer while you slice the rest of the veg.
3) Now add the chopped broccoli, aubergines and zucchini, mix and pour the coconut milk. Higher the heat, add some salt, the curry powder and when it starts boiling, lower the heat and let simmer for about 20/30 minutes, depending on how dense you like your curry.
4) When the rice is ready, drain, let cool, and keep aside.
5) Once the vegetable curry is ready, put some rice on a plate, cover with the curry and serve.