Of Boats and Islands   (& A Couple of Summer Vegetable Tarts)

Of Boats and Islands (& A Couple of Summer Vegetable Tarts)

Venice has fallen under a spell. It’s as if the city is sleeping. As I write this post, and survey the campo through the little window by my desk: Ima, the neighbourhood white cat is napping under the shade of the oleander tree that stands just by our front door; the little old man who lives next door is sitting silently in his chair by the water well, his eyes drooping as he struggles – barely – to keep them open; the big campo that at any other time of the year is filled with sound of children rushing here and there, calling out, kicking balls and playing hopscotch – is quiet and deserted, as the sun beats down in the middle of the day.

It’s the middle of summer – and we’ve all succumb to the heat. There is something oddly restorative about these long hot days: Aeneas’s naps have stretched a little either way – he lays his head down earlier and sleeps on. I find myself, more often than not, napping in the middle of the day too. I’ve been writing – not in a consistent, focused way. Scribbling in my little back notebook – a thought here and a thought there. I’ve been reading Gone With the Wind –  delighting in the guilty pleasure of losing myself amidst a world of dappled shade, parasols and lace petticoats, in a world of fried chicken and biscuits.

In the big cities, Milan and Rome and so forth, people escape for the weekends. They drive up to Liguria or the nearby countryside to enjoy the summer. In Venice we take our boats out. It is one of my favourite things to do, driving around in our tiny little boat – something about the salty air, and the breeze, the water splashing in your face as you bump over the waves. Sometimes, we’ll drive around the lagoon with no real purpose, just the pleasure of moving, gazing into the bright blue sky and feeling the sun on your skin. And sometimes we plan to go somewhere.

In the big cities, Milan and Rome and so forth, people escape for the weekends. They drive up to Liguria or the nearby countryside to enjoy the summer. In Venice we take our boats out. It is one of my favourite things to do, driving around in our tiny little boat – something about the salty air, and the breeze, the water splashing in your face as you bump over the waves. Sometimes, we’ll drive around the lagoon with no real purpose, just the pleasure of moving, gazing into the bright blue sky and feeling the sun on your skin. And sometimes we plan to go somewhere.

Last weekend we had friends visiting so we planned to lunch on Torcello, the little island to the north of the lagoon. It’s a charming spot, brimming with romance and history: Hemingway lived there – in the late forties, while he wrote Across the River into the Trees. Nancy Mitford and Marc Chagall summered there. Yet the landscape has an untouched feel to it: wild fields, overgrown flower beds and bridges made from red brick that look as though they might cave in at any moment in time. Swallows perch on the electric wires, and a byzantine tower looms over the little island. It’s one of the prettiest quarters of Venice. If you are visiting in summer time, you really should try to find the time to go.

We lunched at Locanda Cipriani – where we always lunch when we make trips to Torcello. My husband and I play a game. We leave the boat at the far end of the island – oddly enough for an island with few inhabitants and not so many visitors, it is always tricky to find a parking spot on Torcello – and then we walk along the sun-bleached pathway towards lunch. There are two charming looking trattorie alongside the pathway, with shade and green grass and tables all laid up with carafes of wine. We debate if we should stop there for lunch – ‘we should try somewhere new’, ‘I’ve heard that the food is good’. And then we always go back to the Locanda. Partly because I am a creature of habit, and love few things more than to eat at the same (favourite) restaurant again and again. And partly because in my mind now, a trip to Torcello itself is inextricably linked with the Locanda, its shady pergola, and their zabaione semifreddo. Somehow, not to lunch there would feel like a terrible disappointment.

Lunch was simple: we ate deep fried zucchine flowers (because I can never say no to those), caprese salad, cold roast beef, finely sliced with shavings of parmesans and a heap of rocket – all drenched in olive oil. Anthony had a vitello tonnato – and I ate most of it, so we ordered more zucchine flowers, and another jug of cold iced tea. We lazed over lunch, happy to be in the shade. Enjoying the gentle sound of the cicadas and the elegant table service – so friendly and so charming in an old-world-y kind of a way. Then as we got up to leave, it was almost four. We had planned to pay a visit to the beautiful byzantine bell tower that has been under restoration for as long as I can remember and which only now has been opened to the public once again. But somehow we ran out of time, so we hopped on our boat and sped off.

Late afternoon we approached the island of Murano, driving slowly in the boat – the sun beating down on us, the air still. The cicadas still singing, now only more loudly, as if they had followed us all the way from Torcello. We moored at the cantiere (boat yard) and got off to chat to Maurizio, one of the guys there.

Exciting news: Maurizio is going to build Anthony a new boat. The little boat that we have now is old. It was old when I bought it for Anthony as a wedding present six years ago. Since then, it’s lost a handrail, bumped against many a canal wall, scraped the bottom of the lagoon in low tide. lost all its seat cushions and most of its lights. And then there is the motor which works and it sleeps when it wants to too. I’ll be sad to see our little boat go, but when it’s time, it’s time…

So we chatted at length with Maurizio about what kind of wood he should use, about the shape of the hull, the motor and the metal rim that goes around the edge of the boat (to stop it getting too badly damaged, apparently). The two little cubbies that will go under the hull – one to store bits and bobs and one for a picnic cold box. And then what colour we should paint the wood and how it should be varnished. Then, come six o’clock, we shook hands and decided on one important thing: no decisions should be made until after the summer, the weather is too hot for decision making. As I said, it’s as if Venice has fallen under a spell – the city and all of us who live here are in a deep, deep sleep.

I haven’t been cooking too much of late. That I think is part of the rhythm of the summer too: the heat lessens our appetite during the day – lunch more often than not is half a watermelon, a bowl of peaches or figs. A dollop of ricotta, or maybe even three scoops of gelato. Come night time, we start to think about dinner – so more often than not it’s last minute, improvised and simple. In some way or another a variation of our key summer ingredients: good fillets of tuna sott’olio, maybe with a few tomatoes from our garden, some chopped onion and freshly torn basil leaves. Or melon with prosciutto, and tomatoes with mozzarella. We eat out a lot – when we’re hungry and the kitchen feels too stuffy, even with the little fan whirring at full speed, we go to our favourite restaurant and eat plates of deep fried seafood doused in salt. Something about summer and the heat that makes me want to eat fritto misto.

So I wanted to share with you a few recipes that I’ve been making over and over again – old favourites, as it were. Nice savoury tarts – tarts tartin of sorts, with zucchine mint, and basil, and cherry tomatoes caramelised in honey and balsamic vinegar. They need little more than a crisp green salad on the side, and chunks of the freshest buffalo mozzarella – doused in olive oil and sprinkled with a little salt. Sometimes with a whole ricotta. Then, sardines lightly griddled on stems of rosemary, and stuffed with a homemade pesto sauce – these have become a particular favourite for little Aeneas who adores both sardines and pesto. And then these butter roasted peaches (a favourite of mine!) –  served either hot from the oven with a scoop of gelato, or chilled from the fridge with clotted cream.

Tarte Tartin di Zucchine con Menta e Basilico

(Zucchine, Mint and Basil Tarte Tartin)

One of the things that I love most about tartes tartin is that they are a ‘one pan’ dish – I use the same fan to brown the butter and toss the zucchine, then put it in the oven with the pastry to bake. If you don’t have an ovenproof frying pan, then you can just as well use a baking tin instead.

I use ready made puff pastry to make this tart – mostly because it is quick and simple and I can toss it together easily for dinner. But if you have the time, you could of course make your own pastry – I love this recipe.

Serves: 6-8

Prep Time: 10 mins

Ingredients

  • 40g butter
  • 4 medium sized zucchine
  • 2 tbsps olive oil
  • small bunch of fresh mint
  • small bunch of fresh basil
  • 1 1/2 tbsps caster sugar
  • 1 x 250g packet of puff pastry
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsps coarse breadcrumbs
Read the whole recipe on From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine