NEW YORK - As we all know, traveling today is a miserable proposition. Crowded airports, long security lines, exhausting fellow passengers. But none of these travails come close to those tolerated by the 18th-century Grand Tourist – those young British gentlemen who travelled to Italy to further their education. The Grand Tourist took days or even weeks to reach his destination, all the while enduring – and that is the word for it – appalling conditions: poor or impassable roads and shabby inns with vermin-infested bedding.
And then there was the food – utterly “foreign” and often lamentable.
GEORGE ROMNEY, PORTRAIT OF WILLIAM BECKFORD, UPTON HOUSE. THIS PORTRAIT WAS PAINTED IN 1782, JUST AFTER BECKFORD’S RETURN FROM THE GRAND TOUR. UPTON HOUSE, WARWICKSHIRE, UK / NATIONAL TRUST PHOTOGRAPHIC LIBRARY/CHRIS TITMUS / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES.
Even extreme wealth was not a buffer to these discomforts. The English collector and writer William Beckford, the richest “commoner” in England, famously recalled in his published memoirs that he was served a “dish of mustard and crows’ gizzards” by “two hags” while crossing the Apennines on his way from Bologna to Florence. I have researched the traditional cuisine of the Mugello region, and have not been able to find any mention of ventrigli di corvo con senape, so I think the “hags” must have been scraping the bottom of the barrel in order to serve their guest. Fortunately, Beckford was able to charm a few eggs out of them, and his evening improved.
Of course, the Grand Tourist viewed food with a native British eye. The upper class was familiar with French cookery, but most travellers had no experience with Italian cuisine (although some was available in London even in the 17th century). Most English visitors found the use of “garlick” and “oyl” excessive and disagreeable, but they were not above praising certain Italian flavours; there is frequent admiration for “Parmezant” cheese, and broccoli was marveled at.
Our three-part series revisits the novel culinary experiences the Grand Tourists had as they made their way south, from Venice to Florence, Rome and Naples, and includes recipes for modern takes on traditional dishes that the contemporary traveller can find in each city today. First stop: Venice.
As it was for our friend William Beckford, the first stop on many a Grand Tourist’s itinerary was Venice. The city could be reached either through Austria and the Brenner Pass, or through France, via Mont Cenis, with stops in Milan and Verona along the way.
HENDRICK VAN LINT, VENICE, A VIEW OF THE PIAZZA SAN MARCO WITH THE PIAZZETTA. ESTIMATE $80,000–120,000.
Reaching the magnificent canals and palaces of Venice, the Grand Tourist would have found a wide variety of hostelries and inns, taverns, cafés and casinos; the city was the playground of Europe. In addition to gambling, the masked pleasures of Carnival and the masterpieces of Bellini, Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese, there was the distinctive food of the city to enjoy. With its key geographical position and history of trade with the east, Venice developed a unique cuisine, mixing eastern influences and goods with produce, particularly seafood, rice and other local commodities.
A dish that perfectly combines the grand merchant tradition of Venice with its more humble side is Sardelles in Saor, which can be enjoyed year round but is traditionally associated with the festival of the Feast of the Redeemer in July. The dish consists of sardines, a simple fish abundant in the Adriatic, with a sweet and sour sauce undoubtedly of Oriental origin. I like to make it with a less fishy fish, so I use sole instead of sardines, and the change makes the dish more elegant if less traditional. It is a meal that a Grand Tourist would likely have been served while visiting the city, although I cannot find record of any reaction to it. It is allowed to set for at least 24 hours and is served at room temperature, so perhaps it was something that only the most adventurous of them would have dared to try.
Sole in Saor (for 4 people)
1 lb. sole fillets, cleaned, cut into slices about 3 inches across
Vegetable oil for frying
½ cup olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 cups good white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons pignoli nuts (more to taste)
2 tablespoons sultana raisins (more to taste)
Rinse and pat dry the fish on paper towels. Heat enough vegetable oil to come up about a ½ inch in a deep skillet. Make sure the oil gets quite hot. Meanwhile, dredge each fillet in the flour in a shallow bowl (you can mix in a bit of salt and pepper) and shake off excess. Once the oil is hot, slip the coated fillets into the pan and fry until golden. Using a slotted spatula carefully flip the pieces to keep them whole. Remove filets and drain on paper towels to absorb any excess oil.
While the fillets cool, put the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and sauté until lightly golden. Add the vinegar and sugar and lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
In a covered serving dish or casserole with high sides, layer the fish pieces, overlapping them. Sprinkle with pine nuts and raisins and spoon on some of the onion mixture. Place another layer of fish on top and repeat with the pignoli, raisin and onion mixture.
Cover the dish and let it stand in a cool place, but do not refrigerate; remember, this dish originated as a way for fishermen to preserve their catch before the invention of refrigeration. Let it rest for at least 24 hours and for up to two days. If you prefer to refrigerate, allow the fish to come to room temperature completely before serving.
The vinegar in the dish makes a wine pairing tricky, although traditionally it is served with a red Raboso from the Veneto. Otherwise, try a good quality prosecco.
Tomorrow’s Grand Tour stops: Florence and Rome