A taste of Venice
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
My most exciting find during a recent trip to Venice was not the small piece of Murano glass I was able to afford (you wouldn't BELIEVE the prices) or the very cool dress I snagged at a discount store (although their idea of "discount" certainly isn't Ross), but an English-language cookbook called "Venice: Tradition and Food" by Pino Agostini and Alvise Zorsi (Arsenale Editrice, hardback, 2004). Zorsi is the daughter of a famed Venetian food writer, Elio Zorsi, author of the now rare and collectible "Gastronomia Veniziana."
I had been eating all over Venice for a week and was desperate to better understand the dishes and ingredients I was experiencing, but language barriers generally prevented me from finding out what I wanted to know. (At one point, a waiter told us the garnish on a dish was 'dried egg' and we spent DAYS trying to figure out what that might be. Never did come to understand it.)
One of the key questions, in fact, the first question: What is saor? The very first night in Venice, my girlfriend — who had been staying there for several weeks already in an apartment on a canal in the Dorsoduro neighborhood — took me to dinner at a waterfront restaurant called Lineadombra on Canale della Giudecca. One of of the dishes was swordfish in saor with caramelized peaches, fresh figs and parsley.
My girlfriend, who is rarely wrong, opined that saor was a misspelling. But it wasn't. Later, as we encountered different forms of saor on menus from bar snacks to formal dishes, we would come to realize that it is one of the quintessential Venetian ingredients, as elemental as chili-pepper water or teriyaki sauce is to Island cuisine.
It's a simple but inspired sweet-and-sour onion marinade: thin-sliced onions sauteed in olive oil, splashed with vinegar, with perhaps a touch of sugar or some herbs, salt and pepper. In more traditional recipes, dating back hundreds of years, pine nuts, wine-soaked raisins and a pinch of cinnamon are added. (I highly recommend adding these, as it takes the dish to a new level, both in flavor and texture.)
The word saor, by the way, which has a circumflex over the o, means not sour but "flavor" or "piquant," and the accent is on the second syllable: sah-OAR.
Saor is invariably served with seafood — often whole, cleaned fresh sardines, but also sole or shrimp, eel or mullet, or whatever the cook desires — lightly dredged with flour, salt and pepper, then fried, and layered with the onion marinade. The tradition is to steep the cooked seafood in the onion mixture for a day or two, but I think it's delicious the first day and see no reason to do that unless you want a make-ahead recipe for a dinner party. Obviously, for safety reasons, you need to refrigerate the marinating dish, then bring it to room temperature or reheat it before serving.
My cookbook explained that the onion marinade was a way to avoid the onset of scurvy in the course of extended voyages at sea. In other cookbooks I looked over (in Italian, with me desperately consulting my English-Italian dictionary and a five-language culinary dictionary), the proportions varied, but the basic ingredients remained the same — just like teriyaki marinade recipes here, which range widely based on people's preferences and their Grandma's recipes.
Bottom line: This recipe encapsulates Venice for me. It has a storied history. It's very direct and simple to prepare but the flavors, depending on proportions, can be amazingly complex. It's versatile (in the course of 10 days I had it with three different kinds of seafood and found recipes for it in a dozen books and saw it referred to on almost every menu we experienced).
I made saor for my husband the first night I was home from Europe, jet-lagged and time-zone-confused as I was, because I wanted him to begin to understand Venice a little. It even worked with salmon, which is not traditional. It was delicious, but I think this treatment is best with less rich and more sharp and salty fish.
Try the recipe at home, play with it, and you'll begin to appreciate Venice, too.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.