A Tale of Fishermen and a Recipe for Cookies
When I think of Venice, the first image that comes to my mind is not the one of fancy palazzos, but rather the one of welcoming homes with casual kitchens and a mocha always ready on the stove. The elegant facades we see today are the fruit of centuries of great men, who turned this unhealthy marshland into a miracle. But our real nature, the one of us living in the islands, is simple and it is the one of the people of the sea.
We walk everywhere or take a boat, we need to be comfortable and our dress code is generally easy-going. Just think that, as soon as we dress up a little, someone will ask 'ma dove ti va?' (where are you going?) or if 'ti xe in batua?' (you are looking for company...). Most people live in simple houses, flats, which often share the same problems related to dampness, mould and restrictions on possible restoration works due to the strict laws of the Superintendence. Our food too is simple. Yes, of course, nowadays we are all a little bit more fussy and with our own peculiar tastes, but in general, the basic concept is: fresh ingredients, little preparation, great taste. With fish and veg as our main staples, we don't really need to do much.
As for sweets and desserts, it is often said that Venice is not exactly famous for its cakes, but I have to disagree. Leaving aside rich desserts like tiramisù or mascarpone served with mostarda (sweet fruit pickles) and baicoli (super dry biscuits), if we just focus for a moment on our tradition of biscuits, we realise how many recipes we have! Biscuits were among the first baked goods made to take away, made as long lasting sources of food for the husbands fishing out in the sea, who sometimes could stay away for entire days and nights.
It is not by chance that the most famous island for cookies is Burano. Empty in winter and over crowded in summer, this dream island is responsible for many traditional recipes, both sweet and savoury. Among biscuits, the most known are Buranei (which literally means from Burano), divided in two types: the esse, shaped as an S, and the bussolai, exactly the same but with a round shape (to be distinguished from the bussolai chioggiotti, which instead are savoury round bread sticks made with lard). I don't know if you have ever tasted them, but I find them particularly dense. Made to last over time, Buranei are thick and heavy in weight, perfect dipped into sweet wine or grappa. I hardly ever make them, but if you ask me, they are one of the best gifts from the lagoon one could take home, as they have what today we'd call a long shelf-life, even though made without preservatives (because -of course- you are going to buy them from one of our bakeries, and not at the supermarket!).
I'm not a big fan of Buranei, whereas I absolutely adore the Biscuits of Fishermen, definitely more flaky and, also, with fancier ingredients like raisins, pine nuts and hazelnuts. I'm not sure that the original recipe is Venetian, as it is found in many fishermen towns in Italy and, also, in the plains outside of Florence and in the region Marche. Even Pellegrino Artusi, one of the first Italian cookbook authors between the 1800s and early 1900s, reports a similar recipe, precisely number 569, although he uses margarine while we use butter (I never use margarine and suggest you avoid it too). Every place has its own little variations, like the use of candied fruits or other dried fruits, but more or less the idea behind it is the same.
In Venice I suggest you buy them from Emilio Colussi - Il Fornaio, next to Campo San Luca. They have the huge ones or the smaller ones, which cost 0,70 cents each and are definitely filling. I generally buy a tray of the smaller ones and I have to thank the bakery for the recipe I'm sharing!
Sometimes I like to envision the men at sea, chatting nonsense while unwrapping their cookies from the cotton napkin, with in front of them nothing but the blue of the sea perfectly merged with the colours of the sky. As you probably know, going out in the sea in times with no radar or cellphones, was always a risk, especially in the colder months when the thick fog made it impossible to see anything. One of the theories for the colourful houses, in fact, is that the women were tired of sleeping on their own and not knowing where their husbands were, so they painted the outside walls of their homes in bright and luminous colours so that the men could recognise them even in foggy days...
I don't know whether it's true or not, but it sounds lovely... and it is this homely dimension that makes my heart melt when I think of Venice and its islands. Not an unreal and unreachable world of magnificence and richness, but a simple world of cosy sitting rooms, friendly kitchens and lively campi and campielli. The same dimension I like to recreate in my own house, simple and warm, where some delicious cookies and a cup of coffee are enough to keep us happy and make our day...
After all, who needs more when we get to be on a small boat, in the middle of the lagoon, with a batch of yummy biscuits ?!
RECIPE: THE BISCUITS OF FISHERMEN
INGREDIENTS (for about 25 small biscuits)
300 gr Italian 0 flour
120 gr sugar
100 gr butter
75 gr hazelnuts
50 gr crushed almonds 50 gr pine nuts
50 gr raisins
8 gr baking powder
a small glass of rum
a pinch of salt
The night before: put your raisins in a small jar with rum and leave them soaking overnight
1) Pre-heat the oven at 190°
2) Whip two eggs. Keep aside.
3) On a flat surface, combine baking powder, sugar, salt, softened butter and knead.
4) Add to the mixture the whipped eggs, the previously soaked and squeezed raisins, the hazelnuts, the pine nuts and the crushed almonds and continue kneading with your hands.
5) Grease some parchment paper and put on your baking tray.
6) When the dough is sufficiently soft, shape about 25 small biscuits (with, more or less, a 4/5 cm diameter) and dispose separately on the tray. Either use your hands or two teaspoons.
7) Bake for about 20/25 minutes.