So, my fantasy garden isn’t going to feed us. Even with an unused hectare of Sant’Erasmo. And anyway, I can’t fish. So, it would be off in the early morning to the Rialto markets for fish, fruit, and vegetables. ‘Come on David!’ my sister whispered loudly through the open door, ‘We’ll miss everything!’ A few minutes later, we were off through the cool lanes by the Academia, and on to the half-empty vaporetto. Ah, the Rialto market….
How does it score? Well, it’s the architecture really. Buying radiccio or calabrese is somehow more dramatic when done in a Renaissance market by the Rialto bridge than in rather tattered Walthamstow High Street in east London – my local market when in that city. But as to the actual food, well…
Rialto first: fennels the size of footballs, astonishing chicories, sprouting a dozen young flower shoots, hardly bitter, delicious fresh, sliced, dressed, a few scraps of parmesan… Easily half a dozen sorts of tomato (ok, from much further south), vast, coral red ones with rather mushy flesh, or deep red oblongs, tart, delicious, oh – and heaps of dried ones for almost nothing a kilo and now in my Scottish larder. Fascinating bundles of hop shoots (we steamed them), those strange white asparagus shoots, more profoundly flavoured than the plastic wrapped green apologies in British supermarkets… Artichokes, tiny ones for eating whole (delicious), whopping green ones for boiling and stuffing, or just their hearts, just a moment ago trimmed of scales, and floating amongst parsley stems on half-barrels of water. And the ones from Jerusalem, supposedly, which are hardly ever sold in Britain, here in several varieties – I couldn’t resist the knobbly chesnut-brown skinned ones I’d never seen before, and which now await planting out in ‘the wood’, at the end of the garden. And on and on… Bright lemons scenting the morning air, oranges almost as gorgeous as the ones in Moroccan market, glistening in their beds of foliage… capsicums big enough to stuff with a quail… I’d need a fortnight to explore properly, and cook each morning’s haul.
And the fish… well, the lagoon of course. The rustling noise of at least six sorts of crab, tiny prickly things, alive, just, or great big things armoured like medieval knights, endless sorts of prawn, langoustine, translucent blue-grey, or cooked to bright pink, even solid scarlet in one sort and what a decorative dish they could make. And proper fish, silver, pearly, strange brown ones that looked like upsidedown bathroom slippers, or stranger brown speckled things, with no apparent shape whatsoever. Conventional, I bought a huge sea bass, whose dorsal fin spine stabbed me as soon as I got it home. Jane, my sister, her first trip to Italy, looked bemused, fascinated, more than a little greedy.
And then, of course, the people. Tourists photographing. Some, like us, buying. Old ladies with sensible shopping baskets on wheels, beggars, and more tourists. The stallholders too, but not, at least at that time of the morning, shouting their wares. None of that ‘Ere love, four of them crabs a fiver. A fiver, lady… well, for you, dearie, I’ll throw another one in…’ and so on that makes London markets so alive. But then, in London, there isn’t the slap-slap of green water on green marble steps, let alone the vaporetto journey back down the Grand Canal to the apartment…
And most certainly not that, a few days later, at the market in Walthamstow. No architecture. No history. But, good heavens, the people: absolutely every colour and every condition of mankind, chattering, shouting, buying, being choosy, picking up a soursop, putting it back, checking the number of bananas in the bowl that’s being sold for a pound (more of them than I could eat in a week, if not a month). And the produce… A dozen sorts of aubergine, five of plantains, and breadfruit, pawpaws, kumquats, hazel nuts still in the green, and then all the other stuff of British markets – phone cases, luggage supposedly of great brands, shirts, suits, evening dresses for a fiver (really?), junk.
Fish, though, here too. Sea bream, five for a tenner. Medium sized though. Fish imported from Caribbean seas. Fish from African lakes. All glitteringly fresh. Many silver. Some pink. Many cheap. I could eat superbly from this market at a half to a third of what I would pay to eat well in Venice.
And behind the rows of stalls, Lithuanian restaurants, Polish delis, heavily eastern coffee shops, shops with gorgeous breads, a lovely old eel pie and mash restaurant (good, too), and on and on. Vivid. New. Crackling with excitement. Just like the Rialto market must once have been as those gorgeous palaces were building.
But only the crowded, little red bus back home, bag bulging. But it is the bus home, and there is a garden there with crinum lilies, and myrtles, and jasmine, and wisteria. We have others too, delightful, much loved, filled with fruit trees, magnolias, roses. But… But… But none has a rusty gate leading to a gangplank and mooring poles emerging from jade green water. No ancient well-head is shaded by apricot branches. No dream city lies just beyond the vines. I still want a garden in Venice.
By the way, if you are thinking of visiting the city of magic, our Venetian friend Camillo’s charming and erudite sister would perhaps act as your guide, especially if architecture is one of your enthusiasms. Guiseppina Giudice can be reached at http://www.knowingvenice.com.
The apartment we rented was from http://www.trulyveniceapartments.com