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If Marilyn Monroe had been alive and living in Venice around the 14th or 15th century she would have been singing a song not about diamonds but that ‘Spices Are A Girl’s Best Friend’. At that time La Serenissima (‘the most serene’), an honorary Byzantine title bestowed on the Republic of Venice, was the hugely wealthy epi-centre of a global spice trade where spices were the very height of luxury, afforded only by the rich, and more sought after than diamonds.

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Speaking of diamonds I’ve just spotted an advertisement for an exclusive new beauty treatment  ….clearly only for the mega-rich and mega-bored….to be massaged with crushed diamonds.  I say no more…..the world’s gone mad!

Venice, a floating jewel of a city, oozes exoticness to me with its dark hints of intrigue, mystery and romance all of which come together at Carnival time:  those very far-from-serene weeks of revelry, colour, costumes, confetti-throwing, food and indulgence that starts almost immediately after Epiphany and continues until the arrival of Lent. Coinciding with pagan spring festivals Carnival is a transition time from the end of winter to the beginning of spring and is a time when you’re allowed to express another side of yourself.

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From early times masks could be worn at any time in Venice helping the wearer conceal his identity and social status, allowing total anonymity for any illicit (or criminal) activities or lending mystery and glamour for romantic trysts and seduction. It wasn’t until around the 18th century that mask-wearing was limited to carnival time.

There are two types of mask: carnival masks (where anything goes) or masks of one of the archetypal characters from the Commedia dell’Arte.

© where-venice   © venetian masquerade masks

Begun in Italy in the early 16th century Commedia dell’Arte was the first form of professional theatre – usually performed outside in the piazzas and based on witty dialogue, improvisation….and masks.

The main characters include: Arlecchino (Harlequin), Pantalone (‘Money’), Medico della Peste (Plague Doctor), Columbina (Arlecchino’s mistress), Scaramouche (Rogue Adventurer) and Pulcinella (Crooked-Nosed Hunchback). Pulcinella is in fact the direct forefather of Punch in the English Punch-and-Judy puppet show.

‘Martedi grasso’, ‘mardi gras’ or ‘fat tuesday’ as I prefer, marks the end of Carnival when everyone can have their final fling before saying “farewell to the flesh” and entering the forty days of fasting and penitence leading up to Easter.

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Well we’re now in Lent and I seem to be doing very little fasting or penitence (actually none), but I’ve at least put together this ‘flesh-less’ recipe of fish and rice. Venetian cuisine with its access to the Lagoon is naturally full of fish and seafood dishes including their traditional ‘risotto al nero di seppia’ – risotto with cuttlefish ink.

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Venice’s famous Rialto Market is a lively daily market close to the Rialto Bridge. Seasonal fruit and vegetables are always on offer and if you’re early enough you can buy the freshest lagoon fish directly from boats as they draw up at the quay. Otherwise you can trawl the stalls offering locally caught seafood making sure to pick those tagged as “nostrano” (‘ours’).

Either from a point of cleanliness (sepia ink stains your teeth and mouth black!) or from sheer laziness I decided to skip using sepia ink and use my latest discovery, black rice. ‘Forbidden Rice’ or Black Rice is a highly treasured rice from Asia. Apparently in ancient China it  was forbidden for anyone to eat it except the Emperor and the Royal Family because of its health benefits.

You can check out the health benefits and buy this product at: https://forbiddenfoods.com.au/products/forbidden-black-rice but for this particular recipe I’m using the Italian equivalent, a black variety of brown rice – if that makes sense! You should be able to find a similar variety in any specialty supermarket.

RECIPE
SPICE & SALT-BAKED SALMON with FORBIDDEN BLACK RICE SALAD

For 2
Preparation time: 15-20 minutes
Cooking time: 20-25 minutes

SPICE & SALT-BAKED SALMON

Ingredients
350g salmon fillet with the skin on
Juice of ½ lemon
Coarse salt
Selection of spices such as:
Star Anise
Cloves
Coriander seeds
Black pepper
Cardamom pods
Toasted sesame seeds to garnish
Dried edible flowers to garnish (or fresh herbs)

Method

Wash the salmon fillet and make sure there are no bones in it. Sprinkle with lemon juice and put aside.

Take a non-stick frying pan and pour in enough coarse salt to totally cover the bottom of the pan (to a depth of about 4-5mm).

Scatter with the spices and place over a medium-hot flame.

When hot – you’ll be able to start smelling the spices – place the salmon, skin-side down, onto the spiced salt. Let it sit for 1-2 minutes until you see the flesh starting to turn white then put the lid on and allow to steam for about 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let sit covered for another few minutes.

To actually steam the salmon over water would probably only take about 5-6 minutes but I found this method needed a bit more time, plus resting time.

To serve sprinkle sesame seeds over the salmon and decorate with edible dried flowers or fresh herbs

Take the covered pan and remove the lid at the table so that you can savour all the wonderful spice smells.

‘FORBIDDEN’ BLACK RICE SALAD

Ingredients

200g black parboiled rice
5Tbsp olive oil
1Tbsp balsamic vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
1Tbsp honey
Salt & pepper
3 spring onions, chopped
6 small/medium tomatoes, chopped
small bunch of fresh basil, chopped

Method

Cook the rice in boiling salted water for 18-20 minutes. If you can’t get parboiled, cook the rice for between 45 minutes – 1 hour.

Drain and rinse in cold water. Stir in all the other ingredients and allow to sit for a short while to ‘mingle’!

Halve the salmon fillet – removing the skin – and serve alongside the black rice salad.

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