Sunday, 1 September 2019
Rosy in Ravenna and Comacchio
Those lovely people at the Ravenna Festival always make sure there are fringe benefits to a visit, as if eight monuments with World Heritage status (which I described and pictured at maybe excessive length in a 2018 entry) and the starry events of the Festival itself weren't enough. This year they'd arranged a cookery lesson with the magnificent Rosella Mengozzi
and another trip to the lagoon at Comacchio - I requested a return after 2018 - including the boat trip we'd missed last time. Thousands of flamingos were to hand: not as pink as they might be, so presumably prawns aren't big on the diet here, but still beautiful creatures.
Rosella runs her immaculate kitchen, so full of good things, and her eating space in the Darsena pop-up site down at the docks, a popular place to hang out of an evening.
We were there early in the morning, and after several shots of espresso, Rosella provided more virtual caffeine with her wonderful vivacity and responsiveness. The wife of an Italian music critic resident in Ravenna, she came to cookery teaching late in life, having been told by a chef in Rome that she has a talent, and she uses it for good causes; in the winter, there's a sharing with the immigrant communities of Ravenna, who tend to be in this area. They teach her and others their cuisine, and she returns the compliment with la bella cucina d'Italia. On my last full day, having seen J off on the train, I gravitated back to Darsena and found a group of teenage Italians of Tunisian origin packing up after their last lunch chez Rosella.
She'd been feeding them (they paid, but not a lot) and they'd been camping in the sands of the site prior to taking off in their bus around Europe. 'They' are Radioimmaginaria, 'la radio degli adolescenti', which seems to broadcast first and foremost about the climate emergency, and I kept in touch with the girl I spoke to the most, the charming Ludovica, about their visit to London. It turned out in the end that we didn't coincide; they were next off to Stockholm to catch Greta Thunberg before her big transatlantic sail. Inspiring youth! This generation is our biggest hope, but we need to do much more before they can take over the reins.
My notes for Rosella's lesson - above, she's fine-chopping carrot, celery and un poco di prezzomolo - are scribbled in the back of my Ravenna monuments guide, and don't make a lot of sense. Nor shall I bore you with most of the basics here. Suffice it to say that we learned about making the perfect ragù di pesce alongside some very sound advice on risotto, which needs a separate brodo. We also got to taste pasta made with berries (though to be honest I couldn't detect the latter in the eating).
J was gratified that in her commands to use fresh and best ingredients, Rosella recommended top extra virgin olive oil in the cooking - we're often told that basic standard is enough. Always keep a high heat for the first ten minutes of frying. Don't remove the skin from onions if small - choose well (in this case tropea) - and garlic. And did you know that the thread on mussels is used for the garments of popes?
Once ready, we took the food downstairs to eat with Rosella's cooking partner Rosetta (pictured on the left above; on the right below is Anna, mentioned further on).
An elderly gentleman dropped by and told us about his work teaching local children to play old street games - charming, vital - and Francesco from the ice-cream bar Sbrino round the back let us taste the last of the gelato made specially with gorgonzola for a local festival the previous day. It sounds peculiar, but I loved it.
That was a perfect morning. So was this year's excursion to Comacchio, the mini-Venice I wanted J to see along with the lagoon. Last year we'd been trapped in traffic on the main road up to Venice and missed our boat trip. This time we took one from the Bettolino di Foce, an old fishing station converted into an unpretentious restaurant absolutely in the middle of nowhere, where festival doyenne Anna Bonazza had taken me and colleague Ruud to eat last year. It's approached via a sheaf-lined canal
and some of the traditional huts with projecting fishing nets.
Of course we returned from the trip to have lunch at the Bettolino; this time I took courage - as a hater of the jellied variety - to order a local eel for two with polenta on the side
and it was sensational: very fleshy, jellyish in a good sense. In 2018 I intended, but - I see, or rather don't see - failed, to write about Comacchio as the historic centre of the eel industry.
It was a hard life, the locals catching what they could in the storms of November-December (Anna comes from one such family, and memories are fresh with her grandmother). Our excursion took us up a canal at the edge of the lagoon to one of the outposts where the eel fishers lived and worked for weeks on end.
It looked like a fun hangout in the height of summer, but imagine the cold and wet; tuberculosis was rife. In the main kitchen (used to cook smaller fish, mostly), provisions were hung on racks to stop the rats and mice getting at them.
Over the lagoon was an old guardhouse with watch tower, called Donna Bona because ladies would visit with fresh water and offers of personal favours (economic necessity).
In the foreground below is one of the few plants that can thrive here, Salicornia perennans. The fronds absorb the toxic salt so that it doesn't get to the roots.
Our guide was a nature warden in the Parco Regionale del Delta del Po, based at the Bettolino, and he was of course a mine of useful information (though in Italian only, since there were only two of us Brits on board.
Incredible statistic: 70 per cent of the bird population of Europe is to be found here, This part of Italy is a bridge for migrating birds, a halfway house between Algeria and Iran.
Many of the birds are ringed, including a flamingo born 42 years ago in Comacchio they named Olga. She was traced in Sardinia, Tunisia and Algeria. She didn't appear here for eight years but last year she came back. This isn't her, but I love the shot of flamingo takeoff.
The warden was excited to see a rare zafferano (Larus fuscus) among the bird on these posts, a seagull usually confined to Scandinavia.
For me, it was enough to see a pygmy cormorant.
Then of course there were the usual little egrets, the sight of which can still thrill the likes of me
and these creatures back at base - so very odd that I thought they were models until they moved, or unfortunates coated in oil; but a white breast revealed in another picture corresponds to an image of a Black Swedish Duck (which would, I think, be quite rare).
And so to lunch, a wander out to see more flamingos closer to shore
and 20 minutes in a nearly deserted Comacchio on a very hot afternoon (but not sticky and humid as it was last year).
Preparations were under way for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (Cassiano is the town's patron saint).
Some of the vessels around the celebrated Trepponti (triple bridge) had a carnivalesque look.
I'd like to have been in Comacchio that evening. But we had another ritual to attend back in the heart of Ravenna, a dramatic adaptation, around which I'd based the visit, of Dante's Purgatorio - last year's Danteana covered on the blog here - as adapted by the wonderful Ermanna Montanari and Marco Martinelli of the city's pioneering Teatro delle Albe.
Here we are at Dante's tomb where the ritual began for Inferno two years ago, too, some holding rushed (giunchi) aloft to accord with Cato's commands to Virgil to cleanse Dante with just such a plant at the foot of Monte Purgatorio. You can read all about it here on The Arts Desk. The delightful footnote is that as we all happened to be in the same pizzeria after the show, I had to go up and tell them how impressed I'd been. And they then wanted to get in touch, so I have a host of fascinating books to read, some in English - the company is well known in America but has never toured to the UK - and the complete Divina Commedia to anticipate in Ravenna in 2021.