To start with this is far more than a book of recipes. It is also an extremely well written account of the time Russell Norman lived amongst the residents of one of the lesser known sestiere of Venice, shopping as they shopped and cooking as they cooked
Like many of us on a trip to Venice, he had visited the markets, delighted in the abundance and quality of the produce and wished that instead of eating in hotels or restaurants he had the opportunity to cook or himself. Eventually he made that wish come true and the result is this excellent book.
Venetians, especially the older generation, like the French, prefer to shop daily, often not knowing what the day’s meals will be until they see what is on offer at their favourite shops or market stalls – and that changes not only every season, but almost every week depending on what has been caught in the lagoon or grown on the vegetable isle of Sant’ Erasmo. Norman for example tells of the excitement when the soft shelled crabs known as moeche become available, for this only happens for a few days in spring and autumn when the crabs have moulted and are between shells.
Amongst the recipes he gives us are some of the Venetian classics like risi e bisi, (bisi being the Venetian dialect word for peas – vegetables Norman clearly likes as much as I do) and baccalà mantecato but he makes no excuse for including some non-Venetian dishes because in this book he is referencing what people actually cook – and just as we do, they cook and enjoy dishes from other places (although to a real Venetian, dishes from as near as Chioggia might count as foreign) at the same time claiming that many were stolen from the Venetians anyway.
In fact the first recipe I cooked, Soup of Wild Garlic, I should never have thought of as Venetian and I chose it simply because we have acres of it growing here in Sussex at the moment. The recipe was easy to follow and the resulting soup very good. I froze some of the white flowers in ice cubes as I may make another lot for the freezer for when wild garlic is out of season. Next I tried Gnocci with Sage and Butter, a real classic. It was fun to make (I love the moment when the gnocci dumplings come floating to the surface) and enjoyable to eat. I am also keen to try some of the polenta recipes, for as Norman accurately points out, non-Italians don’t really get polenta. Grilled polenta topped with Mushroom and Garlic, Whipped Smoked Mackerel aor Chopped Olives and Anchovies, look tempting enough to convert anyone.
There are in fact 130 recipes in this book; all the pastas, pizzas and risotti one could want and plenty of innovative asides like Toblerone Zabaione. The book is written in an easy, inviting style and it easily passes my number one cook-book test. Do both text and the images make one feel hungry? Yes!
I began by saying this is more than a cookery book for in fact it doubles as a rather idiosyncratic travel guide. Norman chose well when he picked Castello as the district in which to conduct his experiment for although this is Venice’s largest sestiere it is the least-visited by tourists and one in which one can still catch a glimpse of everyday Venetian life.
The non-culinary parts of this book positively invite the reader to explore Castello and to investigate some of the other Venetian establishments mentioned I particularly like spending time in places just off the main circuit, places which retain something of genuine everyday life, such as Trastevere in Rome and Giudecca in Venice and Norman is very generous with the information he scatters throughout the book. I have made notes of many of the addresses and visiting them will add to the pleasure of my next visit. Meanwhile I shall content myself with cooking some of the dishes real Venetian eat.
Four Seasons of Home Cooking
By Russell Norman
Published by Fig Tree in hardback @£26.00