History Tastes Good

Kunal Tej Bir Lama

It had been just a couple of months since I had joined Royal Caribbean Cruise Line as its very first Nepali waiter. The summer months were cooling and the ship was diverted from the chilling Baltic region to the warmer waters of the Mediterranean.

One fine morning, we docked at Venice. Home of Marco Polo, famous for Piazza San Marco, bellinis at Harry’s Bar, Rialto Bridge straddling the Grand Canal, Carnevale di Venezia… And how could we forget Death in Venice, Thomas Mann’s lingering novel, published in 1912? If the book aroused furtive imaginations of the city, then the 1972 movie dwelling on the story of an ageing and dying composer’s obsession for a young Polish boy supplied the unforgettably romantic imagery of Venice.

Venice turned out to be older and a little run down. The late summer day was still balmy, the sky blue. The ferry pier rang with urgent shouts of Murano! Burano!! Torcello!!! But the buzz had gone, along with the hordes of tourists. Still, stubbornly, souvenir shops flaunted their wares: colourful blown glass, marble busts, masks, theatrical clothes and “antiques”, etc. As expected, gondolas were bobbing about the canals, with gondoliers in their black pants, striped jerseys and red-ribboned straw hats, though not quite warbling O Sole Mio aloud! St Marks Square looked listless, strewn with pigeons being fed by some straggling tourists. Musicians had set up stands, but their entertainment was pretty shambolic. Scattered wooden ramps were reminders of low-lying Venice’s constant battle with acqua alta, or tidal floods from the rising Adriatic Sea.

I decided to explore. I marvelled at the intricately adorned Doge’s Palace, the seat of the leader of the once Serene Republic of Venice, an independent state that existed from 7th century AD till 1797. It was once a prosperous trade centre between Europe and especially Byzantine and the Islamic worlds. Venice also became the printing capital of the world, being quick to adopt the newly invented German printing press that spread rapidly throughout Europe by 1482. In fact it’s leading printer, Aldus Manutius, is credited with the concept of paperback books that could be carried in a saddlebag. I curiously slipped into many alleys lined with ageing canal-side villas, still erect somewhat timorously, but stunning nevertheless. Think Sophia Loren. Sometimes, one ended up abruptly at mysterious cul de sacs, or crossed over gorgeous bridges with intricate, gilded decorations. But I’m digressing. This is about the meal in Venice!

After wandering around, and getting lost now and again, I finally found my way back to St Mark’s Square. It was way past lunch time and, so far, the restaurants I had seen were pretty commercial, okay for tourists, but I wasn’t one. I was under the covered walkway around the square, trying to avoid yet another grim quartet murdering Vivaldi’s Summer, when I saw this florid doorway. I ducked in, tired and a little hungry. The interiors were very Rococo: girandole mirrors, carved furniture, wood panellings, various objets d’art and chandeliers, in a collection of small rooms. I was shown to a huge table smothered with layers of gloriously thick damask. A heavy menu was presented and, flustered at thinking I was at the wrong place, I chose the only item I quickly recognised: Salade Niçoise. On top of my unforgiveable choice of a French dish in Italy, I ordered a bottle of Ramlösa, the Swedish mineral water when I should have really asked for the local San Pellegrino.

My meal arrived, and it was only then I had the first inkling that I just might have stumbled into a rather grand establishment. My waiter, a portly gentleman, was ceremoniously leading a younger server bearing a huge silver platter. On it stood a huge and fabulously decorated silver bowl. The waiter very theatrically lifted the bowl and, with a flourish, put it down in front of me, wishing me “Buon appetito!” while, somehow, simultaneously shooing away his assistant imperiously. Hmmm, I thought, interesting, what a lot of ceremony for a Salade Niçoise!

The salad was delicious. It had all kinds of seafood, including whole baby octopus, and topped with artichoke. The endives were crunchy; the potatoes firm; the beans al dente; the vinaigrette warm, slippery and tart. It was an expensive meal and as I dug into it, my curiosity started to quicken. The restaurant had that lingering atmosphere which does not come easily, quickly or by contrivance. Even the weighty silver cutlery was heaving with history! So where was I? On my way out, I found the answer in a book open on a stand at the entrance; I had missed it on my way in. I peered at the pages and realized I had just lunched in Venice’s venerable Caffè Florian! Open since 1720, with a history of illustrious and famous clientele such as Lord Byron, Charles Dickens and Stravinsky. Casanova was supposed to have used it as his hunting ground since it was the only restaurant allowed to entertain female guests! Over time, it had become the centre of art, culture, music, politics and business.

I left Venice proud and happy. After all, I had inadvertently stepped into history. And tasted it.

PS. Caffè Florian still exists, is flourishing, and now has a branch in Florence.

Recipes


Salade Niçoise (or Insalata Nizzarda), Serves 8
A specialty of Côte D’Azur and named after the city of Nice, made famous in USA by Julia Child, the “French Chef”.

Vinaigrette
3 tablespoons best quality wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
250ml plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium new white onion, sliced paper-thin
2 cloves garlic, minced
120g flat-leaf parsley leaves, loosely packed
180g mixture of tarragon and fresh shallot greens, loosely packed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Salad
900g tinned tuna chunks (Ayam Brand Tuna Chunks in Oil)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Rock salt and freshly ground black pepper
20 tinned anchovy fillets (John West is best)
450g green beans, trimmed
450g butter beans (ghuin simi), trimmed
900g tiny new potatoes, scrubbed
1/2 each red and yellow bell peppers, cut in thin (1/4-inch) strips
6 medium red and yellow tomatoes, stemmed and quartered
5 fresh eggs, hard-cooked and peeled
180g black olives
Sprigs of parsley & garlic greens, for garnish

Vinaigrette
In a large bowl whisk together the vinegar and the mustard. Slowly whisk in the oil in a thin stream to emulsify the mixture. Stir in the garlic and the onions. Mince the parsley and add it, with the tarragon and shallot greens, to the dressing, mixing well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Salad
Season the tuna lightly with pepper (it is already salted). Drizzle it with about 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette, then reserve at room temperature.

Drain the anchovies of oil. (Throw the oil later into the salad, it’s full of flavour!)

Bring 4 cups water to a boil in the bottom of a steamer. Add half the beans, cover, and steam until they are tender firm, about 6 minutes. Remove from the steamer, drain and let cool covered with a cotton tea towel. Repeat with the remaining beans.

Transfer one-third of the dressing to a medium-sized bowl.

Bring a medium-sized pot of salted water to a boil, and add the potatoes. Cook just until they are tender through, about 15 minutes. Drain. If you want to peel them, do so as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Add them, still warm, to the one-third of the vinaigrette. Toss, and reserve.

To assemble the salad, just before serving, toss the beans and the peppers with enough vinaigrette to fully moisten them, and arrange them in the centre of a serving platter. Top them with the anchovy fillets. Quarter the eggs, and place them, with the tomatoes, around the beans and peppers. Drizzle them with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette.

Place the potatoes on another platter. Arrange the tuna pieces atop the potatoes. Sprinkle with the olives. Drizzle with any remaining vinaigrette, and garnish with several sprigs of parsley and garlic greens. Serve immediately.

Wine To Go
A chilled white wine such as a Chardonnay, Semillon chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc or even a Riesling. The wine need not be super dry. And there is no rule to say you cannot eat the salad accompanied by a medium red wine. Or have it with a glass, or glasses, of Bellini (recipe below).

Bellini
Said to be invented by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice, sometime between the late 1930s to 1948.

90ml peach juice
90ml Champagne or sparkling white wine
Slice of fresh peach

Pour the peach juice into a chilled champagne flute (not a saucer). Fill the glass with Champagne or sparkling white wine. Garnish with a slice of fresh peach.