Non Solo Spezie – The Other Side of Venetian Food

Coming to Venice between the seasons, that is right now in January, has its advantages before the year commences with the major and longest celebration, Carnival. In winter, Venice hosts the most interesting exhibitions, which in the last two years have been dedicated to the fascinating culinary history of the Republic.

Last year I wrote about Acqua e Cibo and this year, my favorite exhibition so far told the little known history of the commercial relationships between Venice and Great Britain. It turns out that spices played a major role in it 🙂

If you ever wondered where the Venetians got their first cocoa beans from, the main ingredients of the hot chocolate you can taste these days at CaffĂ© Florian, that’s the story to read. The first cocoa beans arrived here from London in the early 18th century.

But how did the Venetian – British relationship get started in the first place ? In the 12th century, Venice was the commercial power in the Eastern Mediterranean while Great Britain was a fledgling commercial nation. Due to the distance (Venetian cogs needed four months to reach Southampton, traveling down the Adriatic Sea and passing by Messina, Maiorca, Gibraltar and Cadiz), the first Venetian cogs (ten huge boats making up the Muda di Fiandra) anchored in Southampton for the first time in 1328 on their way to Brugge.

These boats were part of the mude – shipping convoys used by the Merchants of Venice to buy and sell goods and transport them back home to their centro di smistamento – the logistic center where goods were unloaded, refined and loaded the cogs again to be transported to clients. This logistic center was called “Rialto Market” for more than 1,300 years.

In the 13th century, Venetians on their voyage of discovering the “North” noticed the wide selection of woolen gowns, scarfs and garments produced in Great Britain, and the British learnt to appreciate Venetian food, spices, wine and dried fruit. Uva passa – raisins and wine from Cyprus became British favorites and they also used the raisins to flavor plum cakes.

For centures, these commercial relationships persisted even during political turmoil when they were truncated all of a sudden because the Republic of Venice was wiped from the map in May 1797. Without the protection and existence of the Venetian State, all trade came to an end within a few months.

For example the cog travling between Venice and London in 1795/1796 called Divina Provvidence (Divine Providence) just ONE year before the Republic of Venice ceased to exist – transported the following goods: Wine from Cyprus, rosemary-flavored olive oil and chestnuts. The boat stopped on its way to London in the Greek port of Zante loading fruit liquors. On its way back from London to Venice on 23 January 1796, the boat transported coffee (!!!), pepper, piment, cassia, galanga and china roots, ginger, dried salmon and spice remedies (unspecified). The boat even brought British beer in barrels to Venice. Did you know Venetians love to cook with beer and of course, also drink it? They learnt it from Britain.

Relations got a bit tense only once when the Great Britain tried to sidestep Venice in the 16th century and trade with the Ionian Islands of Cefalonia and Zante directly to buy raisins and wine. The two nations finally found a balance and the British accepted Venetian supremancy, yet these ventures into the Eastern Mediterranean became the core of British interest in the Aegean Sea and in Cyprus.

A commercial friendship developed between the two nations and both learned to benefit mutually from each other, based on respect and genuine appreciation.

40 British families settled in Venice (in the Dorsoduro part mostly) and the Venetian system of trading goods became the basis of the model developed by the two trading nations in Venice, called Levant Company (formerly called Venice Company). The trade income from this model was used to create the East India Company.

Non Solo Spezie shows original documents in six sections in the luxurious sourroundings of the Biblioteca Marciana which hosts so many treasures behind the scenes, I couldn’t possibly pack them all into one blog post.

You could also view the original copies of cookbooks so popular hundreds of years ago, such as L’Apizio Moderno by Francesco Leonardi and L’Arte di Cucinare by Bartolomeo Stefani. These books also come online at no cost – look here and here. These are just two of the books my grandmother and I have been using to re-create recipes of the past.

The cold winter weather makes us dream up the past and conjure up the future. Winter – the time between the seasons in Venice – is a unique opportunity to explore favorite topics. Carnival is about to start and it’s still wintery here with a faint hint of spring in the colors of the food the pastry stores are serving. Next comes an article in which we venture out in the Lagoon to visit a very special island group, followed by a “Carnival Kit”.

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