18 April, Venice
Butterflies, mushrooms & a recipe for Fennel Molly
To the same café for coffee — bad in the good way Italian coffee ought to be. It simply is and lacks pretension. Admire the men drinking little glasses of Campari to wake themselves. Admire that prosecco comes from a tap beside the beer. Italy really is civilised.
With all its sinful doings, I must say,
That Italy’s a pleasant place to me
Today more black-clad people speaking angrily on their phones. They have arrived now, en mass, like priests disgorged from some great ship. All so worried, a little shocking when one considers the worry is for art, all this organisation, human endeavour. I now know the way home, happy navigator. I see a seagull rip a pigeon apart, very methodical. I’d watch the same thing happening almost every day in Barcelona but have never seen it in England. Is it a sea-city phenomenon? Have English pigeons formed a truce with the gulls?
P. comes by the apartment and tells us their butterflies have arrived, folded in little envelopes after being shipped in a very cold container, comatose. “They are learning how to fly. Most are still so sleepy.” Some are still in their cocoons and will emerge later, born into a dark plant-filled room, their mothers raw-wool sculptures. Drop P. off at another hotel, more Morano glass and servility and wallpaper in bad taste.
Hungry across the Academia, hungry we walk through winding passages, very welcome sun at the end of each. We pass a sandwich shop, its windows stuffed with tramazzino. Tramazzino, the mystery of Italy: sandwiches, overstuffed, between wonderbread without the crusts. This makes the packets in the supermarket oddly rectangular, square, like blocks of soft marble. In Rome I’d been told they’re Venetian, and they’re oft around this place, but they spring first from the Turin, in Italy’s genteel north and were a substitute for, or an improvement on, English tea sandwiches. The bread is softened by a great deal of mayonnaise (an English tea sandwich would have butter only!) and further softened in Venice by the city’s dampness. A recipe could begin “Take the train to a damp city…”
A carousel of sandwiches — roast beef; salmon and cream cheese; tuna with radicchio; baccala; ham, lettuce, tomato — each is slathered in cheap mayonnaise, overwhelming the filling. But then… there’s something right here: perverse, a slight acridity, a little nastiness underlying the pleasure and simplicity of a lunchbox sandwich. Only a country so proud and confident in their cuisine could so love these little sandwiches. On the radio an Italian cover of the Toy Story theme plays.
Walking, sun, running hands against the old walls, noses nosying the air, peering up at churches which seem unbalanced. Natural wine beside the the canal. As we take a table a girl says excuse me we were waiting, she with her parents, and I say we were waiting too and put my foot down. I may have jumped in front of her but rather than feeling unkind feel almost triumphant, which then makes me feel unkind. We drop drop little drops of mushroom juice onto our hands and lick it up like cats. People eat big thick sandwiches, a boat is launched into the water, behind it a group of burly Venetians crowd out and shout.
Smiling our mouths a touch open, our hearts open, pleasantly high, the water warm and giving, glancing across the city, the city which seems to love us. I think sand-witches and laugh. Inside San Sebastiano we gape at the ceiling — dark and very moody — with its cut-outs like pictures in a children’s pop-up book. The silence of the church is velveteen. It is dark. The light is bright outside, another church now. A statue of a bishop with devils horns, walls which cascade white marble — waterfalls of the stuff — which I can hear rumbling in my stomach. Before the alter an odd thing, hundreds of rectangles of stone attached to a chain net. New. Art? I like it, pick on up and let it fall back with a clack. Two sides of the coin, the dark church and this light church. God moves about somewhere, humming.
We find a bar with a table staring into the sun. Inside is a chaos of glasses, all dirty, and a bartender alone and tired very lacklustre in his attention to them, picking one up, putting one down. I smile as he does this, patiently waiting for my spritz, enjoying his little dance-like movements. Lo and I sit beside one another, looking onto the street, dipping our tongues into our big glasses. After, trying to walk home, we go in circles and end up further down the island, though we do find lettuce and avocado. Finally a vaporetto and speeding all along the side of the city, softly coming down to the chuck-chuck of the engine, the soft movements of water.
At Da Arturo — storied place it is, so beloved of Americans — and sit with P., M., C., and Ch., P.’s partner who we have not met. He is very lovely: gentle, kind. He asks questions and listens intently, the little poodle on his lap. Midway through dinner we take Gravity out, and C. lights a blunt beside the canal. I admire the bravado and he tells me about being a dog-walker in New York, “people would constantly monitor if you were early or late on their door cams. It was stressful and tiring. Real physical work.” M. is wearing the Miu Miu skirt and the elderly Italian waiter checks him out, at first puzzled and, after a little more thought, quite pleased. Shrugs and grins. M. dabs his fingers in espresso and rubs it around his eyes, “to tighten the skin.”
To Bar Comé to a party P. is ‘hosting’ and find everything shut up, the last stragglers wandering off. Homeward, the moon gigantic over the lagoon. Sing That's Amore. P. films M. strutting across a near-deserted San Marco.
The day after our return we ate at Fay’s house. We eat Easterishly: lamb and so on. A girl called Molly — who I’d never met — was coming and did not eat meat. I made her this fennel.
Halve a bulb of fennel, three cloves of garlic and an orange and put them into a small frying pan — one wants a little crowding — with a large amount of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Cook on a high heat on both sides until a little charred and put in a warm oven — in this case, the oven below the hot oven in an Aga. If such an oven isn’t readily available (it isn’t normally for me) you could probably roast it for 1 hour at 150. It’s probably as good, though this fennel went in for four hours at god-knows what temperature. After the fennel is soft remove from oven and introduce the pan to a high heat and a large glass of white wine. Put a loose lid on (from another pan) and boil the wine for three or four minutes. Remove from heat, rest, serve. Good with mash, so Molly said.