Some old photo albums left on dusty bookshelves seem to me like a time-space window for stepping into another dimension. A portal to go to another universe, as Walter Bishop would say with his eyes wide open from LSD.
I shouldn’t have had any different expression on my face, the other day, when I came across a photo album, like those which are difficult to find nowadays. It was hand-bound with a string and had a dark leather spine, like a manuscript. It had been forgotten over the years, squeezed between some other large Italian art history books. I took it out with some difficulty from the shelf where it seemed stuck in the dust. I didn’t know what it was and so I opened it, almost absently, as we do when we are looking for something but not knowing exactly what.The thick and yellowed pages, were separated by a sheet of matted tissue paper and had such a smell, so simple and yet so difficult to describe! There was everything in those pages! There was the smell of my grandmother’s old house in Venice mixed with the smell of an old fine arts studio. There was the smell of books and that of the thick fabrics which often covered the walls of the Venetian palaces. A strong smell with a taste of something forbidden, as when as children we poke around in the loft of our grandparents. Ah, my grandparents! They are here, in these old pages, as old as their faces, and in these small photos with knurled edges.
In the photos, they were just in their twenties, but they already had a mature elegance and the look of someone who had understood that taking pictures like the ones now covering the pages of this precious album, was not just a private act but was also a testimony of an era that was changing, exactly like their own life.
Behind a small photo and with perfect hand-writing, someone had written “Piazza San Marco, 1919”. I could recognize the Caffè Florian, one of the oldest and well-known in Venice, and in the background, an almost deserted square …. such as it’s almost impossible to see nowadays.
I flicked through the pages in a frenzied way, as if to reveal a secret. I recognized lots of spots and places where I’ve been several times. I really felt like I had put my head into a Stargate: in a world very similar to mine and yet so different and far, too.
That world appeared to be silence to me. It didn’t have people constantly chatting and shouting in the alleys and over-crowded with tourists all-year-round who have seized up even the last glimps of a real Venetian community who is slowly completely disappearing.
To see the deep change a place can go through with my grandparent’s eyes, through their accounts and these images, fascinates me as well as terrifies me.
Anyway, I’m a tourist myself now and I can’t be anything else while I’m taking these pictures, marvelling at how many wonders there are in this city.
I fool myself in thinking I’m not like those who see Venice for the first time, their eyes wide-open like Doctor Bishop. However, everything is so magic here that it’s impossible not to be amazed every single day. I think it’s right that everyone should have the opportunity to see what men have been able to build.
But I envy my grandparents, a little, because they had been able to enjoy this city before me; before the deep and inevitable change caused by mass-tourism, for too long for such a fragile place as Venice. But not everything is lost, as our grandparents would say!
As always happens, though, everything changes. However, certain things have remained hidden as a secret, exactly like this album that had been forgotten, so there are hidden places in Venice.
There are some days, in Autumn, when the sky becomes deep grey and a dead calm lingers in the air.
There are some alleys, Calli we call them here, where everything is still, and the only noise that we hear is our own steps.
There are some canals where boats are not allowed to go, where it’s possible to see the natural flow of the water going up and down with the tide, leaving deep marks on the palaces walls. And then, there are doors and windows showing the passing of time. As a food stylist, I go crazy when I see surfaces like these, worn out and marked, and I’d like to unhinge the shutters from some of the big doors and take them home with me.
There are certain days when it’s possible to breathe in every shade of azure and green turning into every type of shade and then blurring between the sky and the water. October is my favourite month. Still not too cold but already with a northern light.
What a great contrast in colour, during this month, to bring to the table Pumpkin to mark this season. To come back here, to the Venetian countryside, and go out to the vegetable garden to choose the most beautiful pumpkin, is one of the advantages of having left the city.
Forget parallel universes. The pumpkins that grow in our vegetable garden come in every variety and shape….and look a bit like outer space objects!
There are several types of pumpkin, whose characteristics vary greatly in taste and texture.
Among the pumpkins that grow in my garden, I prefer the medium-small ones because, usually, they are less watery and they are more compact. In addition, their skin is less thick than the very big ones and therefore, much easier to clean. In fact, for the best result, it’s essential to choose the right pumpkin. I like those that have deep orange, pasty flesh. They are the best for making recipes like this velvety pumpkin soup. I use the Delica variety, Cucurbita maxima, which isn’t a Harry Potter’s trick, but a roundish pumpkin with thin, green skin and very sweet and compact orange flesh.
The secrets for making this creamy soup special (and all in all, it is a very simple, even easy recipe to make), are just two.
The first one is to bake the pumpkin in the oven first, so that it will dry better and lose part of its water, perfect for making a thick soup. The second is to use bay leaves when you sauté the pumpkin with the shallot because they make a real difference. The toasted pumpkin seeds used to garnish the soup are a treat.
They are better than any crouton and they are rich in vitamins. Something that will change your life, like this creamy soup and like the first time that you see Venice.
- Pumpkin 1 kg (800g when cleaned)
- 2 medium shallots
- 2 medium potatoes
- 2 carrots
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- 500ml [1pint] vegetable stock
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp pumpkin seeds
- 1 small bunch of fresh chives
- Wash the pumpkin and cut it in half. Scoop out the seeds and fibres and rinse it again. Leave the skin and cut into approx. 5mm slices. Put them in a pan lined with oven-proof paper. Put in the oven for 30 minutes at 180 C° / 350 F° till tender. Leave it to cool.
- Peel it and cut it into cubes.
- Wash and peel the shallots, the potatoes and the carrots. Chop them separately.
- Sauté the shallots, rosemary and the bay leaves in a pan. Add the pumpkin and cook for a few minutes.
- Add the chopped potatoes and carrots, cover with the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil, cover with the lid and cook for about 20-25 minutes.
- With a liquidiser blend until smooth and season.
- Toast the seeds in a non-stick saucepan with a pinch of salt. Wash and chop them finely with the chives and garnish the creamy soup, also adding a bit of oil.
(*My portrait was taken by my friend Eugenio Marongiu)