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Venice's spice connections

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

The import of Asian Spices has played a vital role in Venetian trading fortunes over many hundreds of years. But it's not just as an ingredient in food. Creativity and imagination from the renaissance until today suggests our dependence on the spice trade will go on forever.

View of ships unloading in San Marco basin Venice by Gasper van Wittel 1697.

A rainy trip to Venice recently was a welcome chance to explore local restaurants and markets, but also to be reminded of the role of spice in everyday life - from cuisine to cosmetics and perfumery, from health remedies to air freshening, from flavour to fashion. In Venice spice is literally under your nose!

San Marco waterfront today: wander beyond the crammed waterfront for there is much to see, eat and drink.

Over 900 years Venetian ships brought pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and ginger - destined to feature in sauces, main courses, desserts, wine and ale. Pepper was essential to mask the taste of food past its best as much as its role as a flavour enhancer. Spices were protection against common ailments. The aromatic cinnamon helped guard against infection and bad air, with ginger a feature of every medicine chest. And spice helped combat unwanted smells from medieval streets as well as body odour before the importance of basic hygiene and bathing was understood.

That was then, while for me today Italy is always a favourite holiday destination with great taste and wonderful traditions in food and fashion. Venice is no exception.

A visit to family-run Drogheria Mascari on Ruga Dei Spezieri is a must. The variety of produce they display is matched only by the passionate advice given about which spice to cook with which pasta - I just wish it was my local!

Close by is Venice’s most popular market Mercato di Rialto, just a short walk from the tourist laden bridge of the same name across the Grand Canal.

Fresh fruit vegetables but most of all great choices in seafood at Rialto Market.

No trip to Venice would be compete without visiting some good seafood restaurants and one I can strongly recommend is Antiche Carampane. Seafood predominates in a well balanced menu, with the excitement of choosing the fish of the day delivered early morning from nearby Rialto market, mixed seafood appetizers, local favourites such as Baccalà Mantecato (cod Venetian style) and some interesting, more international choices, in particular Spagettini with spider crab sauce. The use of nutmeg, cloves, coriander seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric, known as Byzantine spice mix produced delicious results, with the seafood pasta more lively in flavour than any I have tried in previous holidays in Italy. Tucked away in this sleepy back street location, I started to daydream about those Venetian ships returning from Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire and Asia Minor, long before the Portugese, Dutch and others found their way to Ternate, Tidore, Run and Banda - collectively our Spice Islands - close to my birthplace in Manado, North Sulawesi.

As with anything in Venice, being early is best, especially to avoid disappointment when making restaurant bookings. The same is true if you want to enjoy the local Cicchetti bars (‘chee-ket-ee). Small portions of seafood, salami, cheese and vegetables with a glass of Prosecco is served, an irresistible combination, but do remember the best bars close soon after lunch.

It is no coincidence that we describe fragrances as ‘spicy’ and none other than Leonardo da Vinci extended his many talents into the art of perfumery while he was working in Venice. On the 500th anniversary of his death, the Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice has brought to life his efforts and those of famous Renaissance women Catherina Sforza, Lucrezia Borgia, and Catherine de Medici in developing cosmetics and perfumes through botany, pharmacy and alchemy. A room of enticing scents, spices and science has been created within the elegant setting of this medieval palace of paintings, textiles and costumes. It’s history brought to life!

Spices, perfumes you can actually sample & paintings together in the imposing Palazzo Mocenigo

Finally take a trip across the lagoon to Murano’s many amazing glassworks completes the whole Venice experience, with glassware worthy of the finest food, wines and perfumes in the style of the extraordinary Venetians whose imagination has resulted in a city like no other in the world.


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