Through a friend, and by the animated declaration that ‘la cucina’ is ‘la mia passione’ I had the good fortune to do a week’s work experience at the Hotel Cipriani, a five star luxury hotel owned by Orient-Express Hotels Ltd.
Whereas Hampstead housewives pay the equivalent of sic months old age pension to do the same in Tuscany, and then attempt in vain, to deliver the authentic food experience in their urban dining rooms, I worked alongside the chefs for 2 services a day, did as I was told, took copious notes, asked lots of questions and picked up some bad language along the way.
Hotel Cipriani boasts two kitchens and restaurants, giving their diners a choice between elegant silver service fine-dining in the Fortuny Restaurant and informal brasserie eating in Cip’s Club with the most wonderful view of Piazza San Marco and the iconic Venice skyline by night.
my faltering Italian did help, and I made a little go along way, but learned never to say “Capisco” (I understand) when clearly I wasn’t sure. “Heaven’s kitchen (as opposed to Hell’s Kitchen)could best describe the atmosphere where Gordon Ramsay could have a siesta in a corner to soothe his furrowed brow. Chefs go about their preparation tasks with calm, regimented efficiency. With extraction fans humming like a Maserati on tickover, morning tasks would be stock making for risotti and sauces; filleting Turbot, baby Seabass, and shelling Prawns and Langoustines; cleaning Squid and boiling Lobsters; all fresh from the lagoon and delivered to Giudecca shoreline the same morning. On one occasion we had catered for a wedding banquet for 165 guests in the wonderful Old Granary which finished at 2am. The next morning I asked the Chef if he had slept well. He replied in the negative and said that he had got up at 7am to go over to the Rialto Fish Market to check on the quality and freshness of the order of fish for that day. How’s that for dedication?
I learned how to make gnocci, taglierni verdi and ravioli with Gianfranco who patiently took me under his wing and eventually entrusted me to make spring vegetable risotto with hop shoots and asparagus from scratch. Risotto stocks are made from boiling fowls and chunks of stewing beef plus the Holy Trinity of onions, carrot and celery. Gianfranco doesn’t use any white wine in his risotto but Roberto does…they are both delicious. The consistency of risotti in the Veneto is ‘wavy’ and they are served on a plate not a bowl. The nuances of local and seasonal cooking are keenly respected; for example the method for making ‘zuppa di pasta e fagiole’ (Borlotti bean and pasta soup)is mincing some of the cooked beans, liquidising would make the soup to pink and it would lose the beautiful Venetian terra cota colour. Venice’s wealth was partly created by the importing of spices from Constantinople and these are used with restraint in dishes; for example the sauce for duck might include a hint of cinnamon, and the baby Sole are marinated in sweet and sour onions with pine nuts and sultanas. the cuisine here is not constructed in towers and there are no fashionable swishes of sauce or foam, ingredients receive only the slightest interference from the chef to produce vibrant natural flavours with a little help from fresh herbs.
Although I can now cook some classical Cipriani dishes at home, I can’t hope to source the same quality of fresh produce. Just as you cannot trans-locate a glass of Rose de Provence to an English barbecue, nor can you create a Venetian fish soup with the watery essence of English tomatoes. So the hard lesson is that to experience the taste and atmosphere you have to travel and that’s the fun! Buon Appetito!
Jim Grimes (retired French Teacher, part-time truffle hunter, foodie and long-time friend of “The Angel at Hetton”)