A Venetian Mystery Tour in Meals
By Christine Evelyn Volker
Sitting in Verona’s Piazza Brà, I fell in love. Not with a dashing Italian man, no, nor with the lovely view of the ancient Roman arena, but rather with the taste of polenta and funghi porcini. As I bit through the asiago cheese on top, flavors combined in magical, melted perfection. It was the fall of 1992, and everything I experienced in Italy would infuse my novel, Venetian Blood: Murder in a Sensuous City.
In it, I was determined to share as much as I could about Venice. That meant not only the city’s palazzos, its glorious Grand Canal, its art by Titian and Tintoretto, and its intriguing history, but food and the sensory experience of eating. Italy and superb cooking are synonymous, so to omit food would have been, well—a sin.
In the beginning of my book, Anna, the main character, is hauled into the police station and interrogated about the murder of a Venetian count (known to her as a money launderer). After her release, she must find a way to clear her name as a suspect. Her journey, through the tangled alleyways of Venice, is a struggle to discover the truth, and along with it, a secret which will change her life. Nevertheless, she manages to indulge in a few delicious meals.
Her first, on the rooftop terrace of a palazzo, includes insalata caprese, with tomatoes seized at the moment of ripeness (there’s a debate at the table about the virtues of American vs. Italian tomatoes). Risotto follows, its delicate fragrance rising from a saffron cloud. She sips Prosecco, relishing its tangy bubbles as she gazes at the glittering canals of Venice at her feet. Dessert, a zesty torta della nonna, baked by the host himself, is savored by the guests.
At a gathering the next afternoon, Anna nibbles on a prosciutto-wrapped fig topped with warm gorgonzola cheese, delighting in its delectable sweet and salty blend. A day later, sitting in dazzling St. Mark’s Square at Caffè Florian, Anna and her friend Margo exchange notes about clues to the murder, and treat themselves to the divine polenta and funghi porcini I recall. Later that day, on the island of Torcello, Anna gathers more insights about the murder victim. She also marvels at the old mosaics in the cathedral, and the quietude of the thousand-year-old Santa Fosca martyrion. At the welcoming Locanda Cipriani, she samples plump mezzelune with a light cream sauce and a sprinkling of shrimp, while her love interest tastes a fish stew with angel hair pasta.
Near the book’s conclusion, Anna is alone on the Lido. After a long day of concentrating on potential suspects, she deduces the identity of the murderer. She secretly toasts to her success with a glass of Amarone, accompanied by a scrumptious dinner of grilled sea bass and risotto with radicchio. As it turns out, she’ll need the energy from that meal; she would never guess what awaits her once she takes the ferry back to the Rialto of Venice, and steps ashore.
Here’s the recipe for one of my favorite appetizers from the book. Buon appetito!
Proscuitto-Wrapped Figs (Makes 24)
12 Fresh figs, washed, stemmed, halved
24 small, thin slices of Proscuitto (just enough to wrap each fig half)
8 tablespoons of Gorgonzola cheese
Wrap each fig with a strip of prosciutto.
Preheat broiler. Cover cookie sheet with foil.
Place wrapped figs on cookie sheet.
Broil one to two minutes on each side, watching carefully for burning.
Take out of broiler and add dollop of gorgonzola cheese on each wrapped fig half.
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Photo credit: Christine Evelyn Volker