Quintessential: Valeria Necchio & Veneto

VENETO_COVER_FRONTValeria Necchio’s Veneto is one of the books of the year here at the Scullery. Elegant & heartfelt, we loved it.  With grateful thanks to Faber, we caught up with Valeria to ask about the book, the Veneto & other foodlike things …

Venice is of course Venice – a place of longing if ever there was one – but one of the really interesting aspects of Veneto is the way it tells a story of the region around Venice, the complex landscape that lies away from the canal and palazzo locations so famous from movies and books.

How important was it to widen these perceptions, to introduce the reader to her own Veneto?

“Very important,” she says. “I wanted this book to be more than just another collection of recipes from Venice – which would be the more obvious, popular choice. First of all, I wanted it to have a narrative that felt personal; to tell stories about food but also about people, places and traditions and snippets of life lived. The only way for me to do so was to move the focus away from Venice and onto what was truly familiar to me: the hinterland. It’s a much-overlooked part of the Veneto region that is worthy of attention. Writing this book was a way for me to give it some attention, even if just through the filter of food culture. I’m grateful to have been given the chance to do so.”

So if we were ever lucky enough to be travelling, where should we go?

“Tough choice! Veneto is a very diverse region, beautiful from North to South. You have verdant slopes, striking mountains, seascapes, lakes, marshes, and stunning, art-rich cities to boot. That said, I always recommend spending some time in Padova, for its art and overall look and feel are definitely worth a visit. Close to the city, the volcanic, hilly area of the Parco dei Colli Euganei has some excellent local food and wines that are definitely worth a taste.”

Just as she succeeds in capturing the landscape & nature of the Veneto, one the finest aspects of Necchio’s book is the way she describes her upbringing, her family, the meals she ate growing up. We asked about her strongest food memory – if one meal could represent the spirit of Veneto, what would it be?

“It’d be risotto with bruscandoli (wild hops). Springtime foraging is a much-loved practice in the Venetian countryside. At least I know it was for me. I’ve learnt the secret art of foraging from my uncle, and strolling along the riverbank in search of wild hops for risotto is one of the food memories I’m most fond of. The risotto itself is a quintessential Venetian seasonal dish, and still very much part of the region’s culinary repertoire.”

Necchio describes her grandmother as the soul of Veneto and jokes about her mother’s heretic inventive ways with traditional dishes; family and memories of family are threaded subtly into the book, genuine and gentle. Throughout, the provenance of recipes is hugely important and to a very large extent it’s Veneto‘s outright fascination for its food history that makes it such a great read:

“Tradition is a constant presence and a reference point for me as a cook,” she says. “My Venetian heritage has a huge influence on the way I approach cooking on a daily basis. But I’m also inspired by the places I visit. I’m very much a sponge, so I like incorporating other flavours and techniques in my repertoire if I find them interesting, and to create and rearrange and twist and modify when and where I find fit. I don’t see this as “reinventing tradition”, as tradition is fine and perfect as it is. It’s a completely different endeavour; more of a ‘learn the lesson and make it your own’.”

In this way, Veneto succeeds because it isn’t standing still. It’s not an archive. The book’s structure emphasises this:

“I wanted Veneto to be a series of favourites rather than a collection or regional classic,” she says. “This meant that, although all recipes share what I’d like to call a “Venetian soul”, some were going to be more traditional than others – depending on how and when each recipe came into my life. A way for me to group them in a coherent manner was to use the measure of time. So, all the recipes that belong to my childhood and, more in general, to the Venetian tradition ended up in the first section, called Then. The rest ­­– any dish that belongs to the sphere of the untraditional in the strict sense of the word – is to be found in the second section, titled Now.”

In her book, Necchio talks vividly about the impact of leaving the Veneto and how – “rather like a large painting, whose features are best admired from a distance” – the long spell of her food heritage has deepened:

“Moving away was important for me to come to terms with who I was and where I was from, as a cook and otherwise,” she says. “Distance provides perspective. It makes you appreciate details that you couldn’t see before. In my case, it also imparted a soft sense of nostalgia to my cooking, as well as a genuine eagerness to show friends from other parts of Italy or the world what Venetian food was all about. My writing quickly followed.”

Speaking of writing, what about her own favourite cookbooks?

Zuliani“One of my most-cherished books is A Tola Coi Nostri Veci by Mariù Salvatori de Zuliani – an encyclopedic collection of Venetian family recipes, all written in the local dialect. I also like Anna del Conte’s books: her authoritative yet witty voice is a joy to read, and her recipes are always on point.”

And essential kitchenware? Is there a vital piece of equipment at the heart of Veneto?

“It’s my risotto spoon – a wooden spoon with a hole in the middle. It’s wonderful for stirring risotto and making it creamy without crushing the rice excessively. I also use it for custard, and sometimes for jam too.”

Years ago, when North Sea Scullery was just starting to cook, it might be fair to say only a wee few in our town even knew such a thing as a risotto spoon existed. It wasn’t like you’d find a range down Woolworths, for example. Books like Veneto just further underline the enduring & significant development of our fascination for Italian food in the UK – it’s a cuisine that seems always on the up here?

“I’ve only ever lived in London, so my experience is limited to the city, but it seems to me that there is an increasing awareness of the existence of regional Italian cuisines and traditional, quality products. Restaurants focusing on specific Italian regions pop up like mushrooms, as do market stalls and shops selling Italian deli products. In general, it all boils down to a combination of factors: access to information (and frequent, inexpensive travelling to and from Italy); enlightened food writing; and grocers and restaurateurs bravely choosing to push more obscure, less obvious products and dishes. I want to believe it’s only going to get better.”

And for Valerio Necchio herself, what’s next?

“I’d love to keep writing about food,” she says, “and the intersection between food, culture and place, as these three aspects are indivisible in my mind. It’d be wonderful to do so in a new book, of course, but I’m also planning to share more on my blog (Live Love Food). And while on this note, I’d love do more travel writing on the blog, too – though always with a focus on food.”

Veneto is a frankly superb book; you can read our review here. Roll on a TV series, and book two.

Veneto by Valeria Necchio is out now (Guardian Faber, £20)