John Gregory-Smith uncovered the secrets of Venetian cooking at the Gritti Palace hotel Epicurean School
Visiting Venice is incredible. It is like visiting a movie set, everything is perfect. In fact it’s beyond perfect, it’s utterly amazing. Marble bridges cross turquoise blue canals that dominate the magnificent city. Stunning Riva boats whizz past and iconic gondolas meander slowly by. Beautiful buildings back on to more beautiful ones and tourists photo every inch of the place.
The food is off the scale. Venetian’s know how to eat and like the rest of Italy they stick to a few simple rules; eat what you have around you, when you have it.
On a recent trip to Venice it was soft shell crab season. This happens twice a year. Once in March (when I was there) and then later in the autumn, when these juicy crustaceans shed their shells. The result, after a bit of frying, is incredible; super soft and bursting with a fresh sweetness.
This passion for ingredients carries on throughout the year, as I was reminded by the lack of Bellini’s in Harry’s Bar in spring. But durr, little did I realise that the white peaches that are used to make the drink were not in season. So instead of importing the peaches they just put the drink on hold.
I was extremely lucky and was invited to attend The Gritti Epicurean School by head chef Daniele, in a bright kitchen at the back of the stunning dining room at the (iconic) hotel. Guests include everyone from Brangelina, to Elizabeth Taylor and Ernest Hemingway, whose favourite risotto recipe hung in the cooking school – READ RECIPE HERE
To cook in Venice means having an understanding of the ingredients, so we went out to explore the colourful markets near the Rialto Bridge. Huge bundles of new season white asparagus sat next to mounds of fresh herbs and crunchy salad leaves. Round the corner in the fish market, gleaming octopus fell into piles of shimmering sardines, massive swordfish, and pots of clams and buckets of canocchie or mantis shrimp. It was just amazing that such a small place had nailed it with some of the finest ingredients I have ever seen.
Back at the cooking school chef Daniele set to prepping some of the glorious seafood for a feast. Razor clams, mussels and clams were plunged into smoking copper pans with garlic and white wine. Bright red spider crabs were lowered in boiling water and the canocchie also blanched.
We picked hops (as in beer), for a silky smooth risotto, de-shelled fiddly little prawns, trying to copy chef’s effortless 2 twist method and carefully peeled the new season asparagus to remove the woody stems.
Things started to come together for a magnificent meal. A starter of crab and canocchie, a light asparagus risotto and pan-fried sea bass with a clam and mussel sauce.
It was a fascinating reminder how much detail goes into fine dining. The fiddly prawns were for a garnish and the herbs a seasoning, but we took such care that they could have been the star of the show.
As we were taught how to prep the razor clams and fillet a mighty fine sea bass gondolas made their way past the windows that were inches above the famous canals.
We finished off with a wine tasting from the hotel’s sommelier; local reds, whites and of course prossecco. Tasting notes were shared and tips passed on – did you know that the bubbles in prosecco are added to the wine, unlike Champagne that uses yeast to produce them naturally. Fact! It was a fabulous way to get to know Venetian food even better and a lovely distraction from the usual tourist traps of the city.
Minimum group size 4 people and prices start from 210 EURO. Every class includes a meal and wine tasting is an extra 52 EURO. per person.
For more information visit thegrittiepicureanschool.com
The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel luxurycollection.com/grittipalace