Barcarolle for Baccalà
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Have you ever been to Venice?
If you have, then you would know, everything they say about Venice is true. Morning mist rising from the canals would moisten the driest eyes and melt the hardest hearts. Blinding noon light, suffusing every pore, transforming mortals into angels. The Mandarin sun burning through the apex in a chariot of fire falls into a violent twilight, vivid and violet in its glorious death. In the dead of the night, where the wandering streets melt into winding canals, the indigo water laps silently the silver flecks of stars—.
The magic and the magnificence. The gold, the blue, the white—the land of Fantasia. It is a Disneyland only grander; it is a Neverland only it is ancient. Yes, it is all true. Every praise ever lavished, every poem ever polished, they are all true. Venice is a man-made mirage, exuding a mystery that has mesmerized men for a millennium. After all, the resplendent Venice’s has had several centuries of practice to tart itself up, like a mature cortigiana who had once walked its calle and campo. Half hidden by the gaudy mask, who would notice that underneath the lacy façade, Venice actually stands on wobbly, wooden legs, stuck in the sediment of human waste. Yes, it is all true, and it is all untrue.
“All that glisters is not gold—
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold."
(Merchant of Venice, Act 2 Scene 7)
Venice, once the rich republic of seafaring traders, now trades in tourism. Instead of spices and silk from the Orient, she receives fridge magnets and I Love Venice T-shirts. Authenticity peels away to fake leather sacs, made no longer in China but Bangladesh, sold to Chinese travelers, no longer Japanese, who need yet to realize that they are now poor. Awaiting are the new breed of Merchants of Venice, greedy and grinning, but no longer Jewish, for they have long gone with the opening of the ghetto. However, gates, ironically and moronically named MOSE, have come back nonetheless, to close in Venice once again in a brightly yellow embrace.
Venice has always been a melting pot—accepting Moors and Jews alike as long as they could pay—and welcoming Japanese and Chinese—as long as they can pay. Venice, more than ever, endorses equal opportunity with all its heart where locals and tourists are equally harassed. After all, egg noodles and bigoli (a regional pasta which is pressed through a machine called torchio) are both long and yellow, which would spiral nicely on chopsticks or forks. Who knows—even if they switched them around, perhaps no one would notice. For even the locals seem to have forgotten that bigoli were not supposed to be yellow, but brown—the brown of the buckwheat or whole wheat. Alas, the richesse of modern living has impoverished us all.
Once upon a time, however, Venice had accepted a young Japanese chef, into its mighty bosom that takes it all. Foreign he might have been, but he was from the land of the canals on the other side of the ocean, further than the Venetian ships would have fared to go. As Othello might once have found in the green lagoon, he had also found his home away from home. And, there he had found the taste of Venice.
With pierced ears and pink hair, he returned to Osaka to open his osteria. This time, however, he founded his little Venice at the foot of the mountains. In order to reach his sea-less Venice, you have to catch a very local train to a very small town, seldom visited or known even by the people of Osaka. But it is Venice all right. Slide open the door, and a witch’s mirror glints and greets, along with the leg of speck dripping lard. Sit down on the hard wood chair and look at the fading postcards sent over the years. Menu—what menu? There is no menu and there is no price, except for the lunch set for people who do not know what they want—his non-touristy version of menu turistico. But for those, who have sought out Osteria Bricola for its authenticity, they would amply be rewarded with fresh seafood and delicate cooking.
Mantis shrimp lightly boiled and brimming with savory eggs, horse meat carpaccio fragrant with truffle oil, meaty lamb polpettini in sweet tomato sugo, succulent eel sautéed in white wine—all the Venetian flavors you could ask. The chef samples here and there with sips of the prosecco in-between to cleanse the palate—of the chef.
“How did it go?,” asked the chef. He invariably asked. How? How could it possibly go, except, buono? “There is expresso on the liver mousse! And it is excellent!” the new convert waved the crostini around for emphasis, and before the splash of espresso could dribbled down, stuffed the whole thing into the mouth. “It rather goes well, doesn’t it?” He would wink then, or it might have been the tiny Carnival mask on his ear, and you realize you had been tested. Most patrons would have just assumed that the black liquid was “balsamic vinegar” for Japanese eat with their eyes not tongues.
“Which color is the hair now?” Back in the city, another regular asked.
But that is not the, at least, not the only, reason of fascination. It was his baccalà mantecato, which must have been concocted by magi in Venice, for it was simply and sinfully addictive. Whipped and beat, the humble chunk of stoccafisso—dried cod—attains a luscious texture like a thick rillette, but with the flavour of the sea.
“How can this stuff be so good?,” shaking head in sheer wonder, the new regular surges toward heaven—where clouds must be made of baccalà mantecato. But what is baccalà mantecato made of exactly?
“You cannot use olive oil, it makes it smell bad,” said the chef between tossing pasta and churning pizza. Google time: most recipes call for steeping the stoccafisso in milk and then blend it with potatoes and drizzle of olive oil.
“They all say olive oil, milk and potato,” pouted the covert in righteous anger, “they don’t know what they are talking about. Their baccalà mantecato is just brandade.”
“Only those who could not emulsify would use potato as a binder. As for the milk, well, if the fish is good, you do not need it,” shrugged the chef, ever forgiving, “I do the traditional way—not many still do it, though.”
No, sadly no. Most Italians seem to have given up cooking baccalà all together, claiming that it is too time-consuming even in Italy where time still flows on a slower pace than the rest of the world, because the dried fish requires three-day of soaking in water to revitalize the stick fish (that is what stoccafisso actually means because they dry into sticks). Let alone baccalà mantecato, for which the fish must be boiled then boned (yes!) before it could be whipped and pounded into a stiff paste. That requires real love and real labor—neither can be easily found in the year 2020 when love is plastic and labor electric. Except here in the middle of nowhere—where the tradition is quietly carried on by a Japanese chef who loves Venice.
Around Venice, baccalà mantecato is still done senza additivi in most trattoria, ristorante and bacaro—at least those who know not to post menu turistico as the special of the day. Yet right ingredients are not everything. Too many are in various stages decrepitude between runny and ruined where the oil-soaked baguette leaves a round of greasy stamp on the plate. (Make a note: Venetians use baguette, well their interpretation of it, for cicchetti because without the crust to hold it together, cicchetti would fall apart as they need to sit on the counter until they are picked up by customers along with ombre (they call glasses of wine, “shadow”). As for baccalà mantecato, the crunch and the smooth, the savory and the creamy—yes, you need baguette and the Italian baguette all right.)
The reason is clear enough. Oil is cheap, but baccalà isn’t. And the plebeian palate is easily fooled. Any wonder why fast food is so successful? A good quality stoccafisso could cost around €4.50 per 100g—one entire fish is about a 1000g, so that makes it €45 per fish. A baccalà in umido (stewed) for a family of four would need 500g. €22.5 for the fish alone. On the other hand, 100g of baccalà mantecato at a reputable salumeria would be around €3.25, which is about the size of a kid’s scoop at Baskin-Robbins. Some restaurants in fact list baccalà mantecato on the main dish section perhaps for its hefty price (€14) and heavy taste. No wonder you want to dilute it with cheap fillers of oil, milk and potatoes.
Pricey because it is imported, too. This poor fish mummy comes from Norway, which has become ironically the iconic food of sea-locked Venice where fresh seafood is abundant. The story tells of a merchant ship seeking north, as the previous spice route was cut off by the Ottomans in the East. However, the ship was blown further north than they had bargained for, and the captain and a few lucky seamen were rescued by the inhabitants of Rost. Liking the hospitality, the food and the women on the island—not necessarily in that order—the captain returned the year later to buy more of those dried sticks of fish. Which, the Venetians took to their cucina and invented a velvety cream fit for their royal palate.
“How about dessert?” Chef popped back after clunking out a few cappuccinos and chucking in a few biscotti. Not only the art of baccalà, he must have mastered other wizardry in Venice since he seemed to be able to serve the entire restaurant by himself—alone. Washing, boiling, baking, tossing and dressing. He even managed to eat a few bites here and here. But not baccalà mantecato, at least not in front of customers.
After depositing plates laden of tiramisu and pannacotta—with a spoon stuck straight in the middle, he stops expectantly.
“Another scoop of that baccalà mantecato…and make it big.” The chef shuffles back to the industrial fridge to take out the silver container, where the white treasure is hidden. Calculating the price despite the lack of priced menu, the amount of creamed cod consumed today would have amounted to €14 at Gastronomia Marcolin in Il Sotto del Salone—the famous food hall in Padova, where the 2nd best baccalà mantecato could be found “under the salon” so to speak.
Osaka, unbeknownst to the modern men, was also connected by grids of canals. In fact, waterways and roads were once the veins and arteries, not only in Japan, but in many cities which have risen and fallen. Yet, we have dried our blood, stifled the circulation and when it begins to stink, we put a lid on it. All in all, in the name of progress. Nonetheless, we long for the water, missing the soothing voice of the swishing water. After all, didn’t we once live in water at a time when all was just a possibility? We rush back to Venice, to the water, to the canals—only this time, we go in cruise ships.
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
(Shakespeare, Othello, Act 5, Scene 2)
Is it a cause or is it a curse? Good-bye, Venice, we have killed you. We have killed you, as we have pierced this piece of succulent squid, and swirl it in ink blacker than death, but it is still good at Trattoria da Bepi già "54". There is no story to tell; there is no lesson to learn. Rather have some white polenta to wipe the plate clean. Or get out while you can: follow the canal upriver to Padova and straight to Bacaro Padovano. For Venice is gone.
Even the Little Venice in Osaka is no more. Now Venice swings only in the lullaby of Offenbach.
Osteria Bricola (closed)
Address: 1 Chome-9-13 Moriminami, Katano, Osaka 576-0031
Gastronomia Marcolin "Sotto il Salone"
Address: via Sotto il Salone, 49, 35122 Padova (PD)
Tel: +39 049 8750654 | +39 328 8163977
Closed on Sunday
Address: Rio Terà de le Carampane, 1911, 30125 Venezia VE
Hours: 12:45–2:15PM, 7:30–10PM
Closed on Sunday and Monday
Phone: 041 524 0165
Trattoria da Bepi già “54”
Address: Cannaregio, 4550 – Campo SS. Apostoli, 30121 – Venezia
Closed on Thursdays.
Tel. +39 041 5285031
Address: Via S. Gregorio Barbarigo, 3, 35141 Padova PD, Italy
Hours: Opening times vary, but open everyday.
Phone: +39 049 876 2777
 Of course, it is Shakespeare.
 Confusingly baccalà usually signifies the salted cod, not the dried but un-salted cod. Before you say anything, yes, there is a difference, big difference.