I don’t think you ever forget your first trip to Venice. Mine was in March, a melancholy month at the best of times. Dark clouds were blanketing London and the plane trees lining my street dripped water from the tips of their, as yet, sticky buds. At work, I had been assigned to ‘special projects’ whilst seeing out a six month notice period. It was mind numbingly boring and I felt in need of a break if I was to embark on a new career with a spring in my step.
In 1995 you could still mark the beginning of the year by the thump of holiday brochures dropping heavily onto the doormat. Thumbing through the pages filled with photos of blue skies and exotic beaches you longed for the advent of summer. But as three days was all I could justify to my bank manager and my children, a short haul solo trip to Venice was a perfect solution.
I was sitting on the wrong side of the plane as we flew into Marco Polo airport and wasn’t able to see the lagoon or the islands as we circled into land. On exiting customs, I joined the other passengers to queue up for a covered water taxi heading for the city proper. The boat was crowded and I couldn’t get near enough to see out of the perspex windows which were anyway scratched and clouded. All I could see were wooden posts as they appeared out of the gloom marking either side of the channel.
On subsequent visits, I booked private water taxis to take us to the door of our rental accommodation. The difference it made to the journey was magical. The first time the children came with me, they sat quiet as mice at the prow of a boat, mesmerised as the city seemingly rose out of the water.
That first visit, I stayed in one of those cheap tourist hotels crammed into a narrow street lined with wall to wall souvenir shops, just off the Piazza San Marco. Later I rented apartments in the less populated districts far away from the madding crowds. But that March there weren’t many tourists or only hardy ones. I wandered the streets, camera in hand, snapping at every gnarled door knocker, or paths tunnelling their way underneath medieval buildings, alleyways that were strung with washing and the winding waterways straddled by sculpted miniature bridges.
My second visit was during May half term and accompanying me and my two youngest daughters was a friend and her daughters. The sun shone in a quiet way and we had a girls’ holiday of sightseeing, shopping, swimming, and daily gelatos. Our apartment was a two storey shabby-chic demi palazzo in the northern reaches of Cannareggio. The ambience of our high ceilinged rooms was further enhanced by a dappled grey rocking horse and two pianos in separate rooms. The walls echoed to the sounds of the plink plonk of keys and the rhythmic creak of the rockers on the floorboards.
There was also a basic kitchen and a tiny balcony which overlooked the crossroads of two canals. Every morning and afternoon primary school children snaked their way underneath our balcony to the scuola elementare two blocks away. Motorboats putted past, heaped with cargo, and rubbish barges wafted the smell of fermenting vegetation upstream as they took their loads to a far away dump.
We sat entranced, coffee cup or wine glass in hand, watching the world of Venice go by. In the evening, as the light faded there was a rush hour crush of people hurrying to leave the island to reach their homes on the less expensive mainland.
On a third visit a couple of years later, I shared a timbered apartment, near the Academia with a brief encounter and his daughters. As an amateur cook, it was he who introduced me to the true wonders of the colonnaded food market tucked away behind the Rialto bridge.
I had never seen such an array of produce, stalls heaped with fresh fruit and vegetables, tiny pasta shops offering freshly made jewel coloured spaghettis, and old women tucked into doorways, sitting on stools shucking off artichokes leaves and dropping just the hearts into pails of water. But it was the variety of fish of all different sizes and shapes – never mind colour – which blew my mind. Not having been able to recognise many of the fish on my previous visits, I’d been too nervous to try cooking them, let alone ordering them.
For this week, my role was changed. He cooked and I happily washed up. We ate on the small rooftop patio on balmy nights and, if he wasn’t the perfect match, at least he was an inventive and very competent cook. One night he served up a timballo, an Italian, upside down bowl of rice and layered vegetables with melted cheese gluing it all together.
It has stuck in my food memory ever since as the perfect dish to impress guests and one that you can make the day before – only putting it in the oven about 30 minutes before you are ready to serve. Nigella would love it. My one grouch with the dish was a textural one. I didn’t like the combination of melted cheese with grains of rice. So I wondered if I could give the rice bowl an Asian twist by using up some of the Thai sticky rice that inhabits my winter stir fries and replacing Italian vegetables and ingredients with Chinese ones. A global fusion in a bowl. Oh, if only the world was that simple!
Asian Timballo – serves 8 as a side, preparation time 1hr 30 mins
600 grams Thai sticky rice
3 tbs miso paste
120 grams oyster mushrooms, chopped into small chunks
2 Chinese wind-dried pork sausages
3 tbs coconut oil
6 spring onions, sliced thinly
4 medium Pak Choi or 8 bunches of Chinese water spinach. Remove hard end stalks and chop into quarters
200 grams of small brown shrimp
100 grams of hoisin sauce
1 medium-sized Chinese cabbage
It is essential to soak the rice first for at least two hours as it has a hard covering which needs to be softened. I find this easiest to do if I leave it overnight. To cook, follow the instructions on the packet, but adding the miso paste to the water.
Whilst the rice is cooking, thinly slice the sausage, then gently fry it and the oyster mushrooms in a pan with one tablespoon of the coconut oil. When cooked, mix in the sliced spring onion.
In another pan, stir fry the Pak choi or the Chinese water spinach in the remaining coconut oil. When softened, add the hoisin sauce and sauté for another two minutes, then add the brown shrimp. Put aside.
Lightly beat the eggs, and when the rice is cooked stir in the beaten eggs and then the sausage, mushroom and onion mix. Put to one side.
Now you can start putting this all together.
Grease a large oven-proof bowl with coconut oil. Separate the leaves on the Chinese cabbage, you will probably only need 3/4 of the cabbage, but do use the large leaves. Cut a large V in the stalks and remove. These can be discarded or kept for future stir fries. Steam the cabbage leaves until they are soft and wilted approximately one to two minutes. Not having a steamer, I hung a large sieve over a pan of water and placed the pan lid over the sieve. When done, line the bowl stalk side up with the cabbage leaves.
Put a layer of the rice on the bottom of the bowl. Next, add a layer of the vegetable and prawn mix. Repeat this once more and end with a layer of rice. Cover with greaseproof paper and cover with a small plate.
At this point, this can be stored in the fridge until ready to cook and serve.
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4 and then place the timballo in the oven for 25 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, run a knife around the edge of the bowl and then invert the timballo on to a plate.