Who doesn’t like a mystery? Add in a little adventure, and you have a memorable experience. Include an exciting locale like Venice, Italy, and you get the makings for a television series, especially if food and wine are involved. This is not just a story, this really happened, and it began on our drive from Susegana to Venice, where the Princess Isabella Collalto hinted that we would share a new experience in a very old city. We arrived at the Venice market and were greeted by a charming woman with a shock of curly hair bobbed on her head with just a few electric tendrils of gray giving her a slight halo in the morning light. The Princess introduced us to one of her oldest friends, the Countess Enrica Rocca, called the “Cooking Countess,” but whom I now call the “Nigella Lawson of Venice.”
The plan was to source a meal from the local Venice markets, but Enrica knew everybody and she wasn’t satisfied with what was on display. So instead we went into the back alleys and food warehouses to find the perfect ingredients. Our focus was fresh and local, so we spent time at both the fish market and the vegetable market, as well as a local cheese shop and charcuterie. Once we collected our bounty we walked through the labyrinthine pedestrian streets of Venice, up and down stairs, turning sharp corners, crossing bridges, up and down more stairs, down tiny alleys, to find old friends of both these magnificent ladies and a spot or two to enjoy some fantastic Prosecco from Collalto before our work began.
Only in Venice can you cook with both a princess and a countess and still have it seem like a normal day. Enrica has cooking schools in Venice, London and Cape Town and just published her new book, Venice on a Plate, But What a Plate! She hosts intimate cooking classes in her incredible loft apartment in Venice, which is basically a kitchen that can hold 10 people very comfortably, and give them counter space to work for their meal. We were each given tasks and I started shelling beans with the Princess, comparing techniques to find the most efficient way to free these green and purple gems from their shells.
Our menu included fresh tuna tartar over a bed of pureed avocado, roasted pumpkin with olive oil and thyme, baked Prosciutto-wrapped monk fish, grilled swordfish cutlets served with sautéed grape tomatoes and fresh rosemary, fresh Italian beans and lardon topped with hard-boiled eggs, fresh sautéed mushrooms over fresh pasta and a dessert of Princess-made tiramisu, though she swore us to secrecy, fearing that her children may discover her new confectionery talent. All of this food paired with impeccable wines from Collalto like their Extra Dry Prosecco Superiore, their Pinot Grigio and their special reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, just to name a few.
After royally shelling beans I was given the task of preparing the swordfish, trimming off the skin and cutting out the four cutlets. When I asked Enrica if she wanted me to save the skin and bones for stock, she replied, “Don’t worry, I have plenty.” She quickly scooped up the debris and tossed it out the window into the canal, something you don’t normally see at a cooking class. Much laughter ensued, as we all checked to see if she hit a passing gondola. (She didn’t.)
I can’t tell you how much we laughed as we learned some of her techniques that focused on the flavors of the ingredients and not on a lot of complex sauces. This was “slow food” at its best with a strong locavore component. Fresh ingredients delivered to market early that morning to be hand-selected by this renowned chef and made into an incredible meal all in one day. Here is Italian cuisine at its finest, and we enjoyed it all the more because of our hard labor, made even more enjoyable with Collalto wines.
I’ve been lucky enough to go on many wine country excursions but nothing can compare to this day of cooking in Venice with a countess and a princess. We all learned new recipes, new techniques and expanded our wine pairing skills, but most importantly, we left understanding a cooking idealogy that is truly Italian.
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