I’ve got to be honest here – 2021 was not a bad year for us.
Okay, it wasn’t ideal that The Venetian Legacy came out when bookshops were closed in England, but we still managed to crack the Times Top 10 (which I genuinely wasn’t expecting!). There weren’t many real-life events, sadly, and I wasn’t able to do anything in the way of signings beyond scurrying around every Waterstones in London last October and signing stock. But on the plus side, I was able to meet up with readers and Crime Cymru pals at the Crickhowell Literary Festival. And, of course, there was the inaugural Gwyl Crime Cymru digital festival which was terrific fun. So, as I said, it wasn’t a bad year.
And there’s a few things to look forward to in 2022. The Venetian Game will be published in Estonia, and I’m very much looking forward to the Headread Literary festival in Tallinn in May. My German publisher, Rowohlt, continues to be committed to the series and so Venetian Masquerade comes out in March with Venetian Gothic following next year. My continued thanks to Dinah Fischer and, of course, my translator and friend Birgit Salzmann.
And then, of course, there’s this year’s Nathan Sutherland novel, The Angels of Venice. Now, this is our first time in hardback and so you might have noticed that the usual publication schedule has changed. Quite simply, a few of – shall we say – the Big Hitters have books out earlier in the year. By holding Angels back a few months, my publisher is hoping to maximise its visibility. My apologies for the delay but, from this year on, we should settle into a pattern of hardback/ebook/audio in July, with the paperback coming the following January.
We’ll have to see what happens event-wise. Crime Cymru will be digital again this year due to circumstances very much beyond the festival committee’s control. But, like last year, it’ll still be brilliant! Details as soon as I have them confirmed. Then there’ll be Tallinn the following month and I’m currently discussing possibilities for an event in Germany when Maskerade comes out, whether that be in person or online. And in mid-July I’ll be looking to do some signings in the UK. Fingers very much crossed.
As I said at the top, 2021 wasn’t a bad year for us. I know other people’s experiences were very, very different. With my continued thanks to you all, and sincerest wishes for a happier, more peaceful 2022.
I’ve just realised that – although I tweeted this a couple of weeks ago – there might be a few of you who haven’t seen it. My apologies, and I hope you enjoy it!
For Elena, Sebastiano and Vera
Dario, Vally, Federica, Emily and I stood at the great entrance to the Basilica of the Salute and realised that balloons were going to be a problem.
‘We should have thought of this,’ said Dario.
A young man in clerical garb stood at the entrance barring our way. He looked at us, and then down at Emily, happy and smiling with two enormous helium balloons floating above her head, one in the shape of the Amazing Spider-Man, the other in the shape of a motorcycle. His face bore the expression of one who is going to have to deliver bad news to a small child.
‘Signori -‘, he began, with a weak smile.
Dario interrupted him. ‘It’s the balloons, isn’t it?’ He turned to Vally. ‘I knew the balloons would be a problem.’ He turned back to the young man. ‘We’ll be very quick, I promise.’
‘Signori -‘, his smile grew ever more watery, ‘- I’m sorry but…’
‘Five minutes, that’s all.’ He looked at Vally. ‘That’s enough, right?’
I put my hand on his arm. ‘Dario, there’ll be people there wanting to pray. And I don’t know very much about that but I’m pretty sure having the Amazing Spider-Man floating in the air just in front of you isn’t going to help with getting into the right frame of mind.’ I stretched my hand out to Emily. ‘You go in, and just let me look after them, eh?’
‘You sure, vecio? Why you?’
‘Because I’m the least religious person here. And I’ve always wanted to be a balloon monitor.’
Emily passed them over to me, slowly, and with an expression on her face that suggested it would be the worse for me if the same number of balloons was not there upon her return.
Vally took her by the hand and led her inside. Fede smiled, touched my cheek, and followed her.
Dario frowned. ‘You sure this is okay?’
‘Dario, they’re balloons. What could go wrong?’
‘Okay, now I’m worried.’
I grinned. ‘Don’t be. Go on, have a good time. Sorry, wrong words. I mean, just go on in. Take all the time you need.’
A fine rain was starting to fall, and I leaned back into the shelter of the walls, trying not to look as if I was selling anything. I looked out at the procession of Venetians making their way across the votive bridge that stretched from the sestiere of San Marco across the Grand Canal to Dorsoduro.
At least we’d had a Festa della Salute this year. The previous one had been a dour affair shorn of almost everything that made it special. But this year some sort of normality had been restored. The temporary votive bridge was back, to the delight of all except the residents in the vicinity of Santa Maria del Giglio, who – as ever – found their vaporetto stop disappearing. The mercatino was back, and the air was rich with the smells of anything and everything that could be fried, doused in sugar or – ideally – both. Small children with enormous balloons were back, meaning that your space on the vaporetto would be shared with a menagerie of cartoon characters that I was far too old to be familiar with. I looked upwards. Except for Spidey, of course. At least I recognised him. And later that evening, we’d head out together to eat castradina, that hearty Venetian stew of smoked mutton and cabbage that really was better than it sounded.
Yes, close your eyes and take in the smells and the sounds and it could be any normal Festa della Salute. Open them again and, well, you saw the masks and the not-always-convincing attempts at social distancing and realised that it was no more than normal-ish. But Venice would settle for that, right now.
Vally, Dario, Emily and Fede emerged from the Salute, and smiled as they saw me trying to shelter from the rain with only Spider-Man to help me.
‘Good?’, I said.
Fede squeezed my free hand. ‘A bit strange. I always light a candle for papà but they’re not allowing us to do that this year.’
She shook her head. ‘No. We just give them a candle and they light it at some point in the future. It’s not quite the same, but it’s something.’
Normal-ish, then. And that would do for now.
Emily tugged at my other hand. I smiled down at her, and passed her the balloons. She stared up at Spider-Man, as if to be absolutely sure that he’d come to no harm whilst in my possession, and then smiled and skipped away after handing the strings of the motorcycle to Dario who looked a little embarrassed.
I grinned. ‘Wait a minute. That’s not Emily’s, is it? That’s yours.’
Vally laughed. ‘You’ve only just worked that out?’
‘Yes. I naively assumed the balloons were for the small girl. Was I wrong?’
Dario pretended to grumble, and looked down at his shoes. ‘Well, okay, yes. It’s mine. But that’s a Ducati 950. Good bike.’
‘Even in balloon form?’
‘Even in balloon form.’ He gave up trying to look serious. ‘Come on, I’m hungry. It’s raining and Nathan’s lost his superhero to keep the rain off. Let’s go and eat.’
Dario pushed his plate aside, and sighed happily.
‘Sure was.’ He tapped on the window, inclining his head towards Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. ‘The lights will be going on soon. Christmas is nearly here.’
‘It certainly is. Any plans?’
There was silence around the table for a moment, and I wondered if I’d said the wrong thing.
‘I mean, you’ll be heading off to Trieste, right? To see Vally’s mum and dad.’
Vally sighed. ‘Maybe. We’re not sure.’
‘But we can travel again now. In between regions, I mean.’
‘We can. At the moment. But what about in a month’s time? Who knows?’
‘I know. But we can hope for the best, eh?’
She shook her head. ‘No. We did that last year. Right up until the last week. And then we had to cancel. That made it worse for them.’ She nodded at Emily, and lowered her voice. ‘And for her. Having to tell her that we wouldn’t be seeing nonno and nonna on Christmas Day. So no, no plans this year. Maybe we’ll see them at New Year. If we’re allowed.’
‘Ah, that must be difficult. How are they?’
Vally looked down at the table. ‘It’s been tough for them. Being a long way from us. When I see them now, I just keep thinking that they look older, you know?’
I nodded. ‘I’m sorry.’ A thought struck me. ‘Look, why don’t you come around to ours?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course. Look, if you’re at home , you’ll be stressing out about not being with your mum and dad. And somebody will be having to cook as well. Whereas if you come round to ours I’ll do the cooking and you can just relax. Six will be just as easy as three.’
‘That’d be so nice.’ Vally reached across the table and hugged me. ‘Thank you.’ She looked down at Emily. ‘Christmas dinner with Uncle Nathan then, cara. Won’t that be fun?’
The little girl frowned slightly as if unconvinced.
‘Remember he’s got a cat,’ Vally added.
Emily brightened, and I winced inwardly. Vally looked over at Fede. ‘This is okay, isn’t it?’
Fede smiled. ‘It’ll be lovely. Mamma will be there as well. She’ll be so happy to see a proper family around the table. Be prepared for her to make a big fuss over Emily.’ She leaned over and kissed me. ‘Well done tesoro, you’re becoming quite the New Man.’
‘Wow. Have we reached the moment at which everybody hugs me and tells me what a great guy I am?’
‘We have.’ Dario stood up and pulled me half out of my chair, drawing the breath from my lungs and a plaintive little N’yeep from me. ‘Thanks man. We’ll look forward to it.’
‘It’s settled then. Fantastic. Oh, but you might want to bring a chair with you. Actually make that two chairs. We’ve only got four.’
Dario insisted on grappa at the end of the meal. To be honest, it didn’t take that much insisting, and we made our way happily and only slightly unsteadily homewards.
I’d been in a good mood upon leaving the restaurant, but started to fret during the walk home. Fede kept looking at me, knowing that something was up but not wanting to press me. She suggested a nightcap at the Brazilians but I wasn’t really in the mood and told her I’d rather have an early night.
She waited until I put the kitty biscuits down for Gramsci, and then gave me a gentle hug.
‘You’re thinking too much, tesoro.’
I gave a weak smile. ‘Is it that obvious?’
‘You hardly said a word on the way home and then you turned down a drink. Obviously, it’s serious. Come on. Tell me.’
I sighed. ‘I dunno. Things suddenly seem a bit complicated that’s all. So many things to go wrong.’
‘About Christmas? Come on, you’ve done a nice thing tonight. We’ll have a lovely time, all being together. And don’t worry about cooking. I’ll help. So will mamma.’
‘That’s just it. What if we can’t all be together? What if the rules change again? What if it’s like last year? Because if it is, I’ll…’
She put a finger to my lips. ‘Shush now. That’s four IFs. Let’s not worry about the IFs.’
‘I know, but I keep thinking…’
’Stop thinking then. This is Mr Grappa talking isn’t it? Come on now, there’s nothing we can do, whatever happens.’
‘I suppose you’re right.’
‘Of course I am. That’s my job. Now, would watching one of your horrible films cheer you up?’
I brightened. ‘Even Profondo Rosso?’
She did her best to keep the disappointment out of her voice and I loved her for it. ‘Again?’
‘We haven’t watched it since last Christmas.’
‘I’ll never understand why you think it’s a Christmas movie.’
‘It begins at Christmas.’
‘It begins with a stabbing at Christmas.’ She smiled. ‘Come on then. If this is what it takes.’
And so we curled up on the sofa together to watch a giallo from 1975 that even I had to admit was only tangentially related to the festive season. Gramsci’s ears twitched upon hearing the opening theme, and he slunk wearily under the sofa, safely out of reach of the terrible events unfolding on screen.
Fede was right. It did cheer me up. Nevertheless, the IFs were still there, nagging away insistently at the back of my head, and I found it difficult to fall asleep…
At first, I thought it was just cold and that Fede or Gramsci had managed to steal the bedclothes away from me. But then my back twinged and I wondered if I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, thinking that perhaps both of them had left me to my own devices whilst watching yet another terrible old film of no interest to either of them.
I opened my eyes.
No wonder I’d felt cold.
The pink and white marbled floor could have been from any number of churches in Venice but, nevertheless, seemed familiar to me. A red glow came from a candle placed on top of a simple altar, and moonlight streamed in through the windows illuminating a gilded, empty picture frame.
The Valier chapel, in the church of Madonna dell’Orto.
I yawned, scratched my head and stood up, and yelped with the shock of the cold floor against my bare feet.
‘You should put some shoes on, you know?’
I yelped again, and jumped backwards.
The speaker was sitting on the opposite side of the chapel. At first I took him for a priest, but then I realised that what I had mistaken for a clerical collar was just a white collarless shirt under a flowing black robe. His hair, reddish, shoulder-length and almost painfully unfashionable, was topped off with a black cap, and he stared back at me with some amusement in his eyes.
I shook my head, and screwed my eyes shut. I heard the sound of his gentle laughter echo around the chapel.
I counted to ten and then opened my eyes. He was still there. For that matter, I was still there. There was something about his face, something familiar…
The Valier chapel in the church of Madonna dell’Orto. From where a Madonna and Child painted by Giovanni Bellini, in the fifty-first year of his long life, had been stolen almost thirty years previously, leaving nothing behind but a gilded picture frame.
I sat back down again, happy to take my feet off the freezing cold marble. ‘You must really like Bellini to come and look at an empty picture frame in the middle of the night,’ I said.
‘I could say the same about you,’ he smiled. He got to his feet, and walked to the altar, stretching up to trace his fingers around the empty interior of the frame. ‘Beside, this was a good piece. I was quite proud of it, you know.’
He turned around to stare at me, and this time there was no mistaking the resemblance. The face of a man I’d last seen in an oil painting at the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
’You?’, I said.
He smiled. ‘Of course. Hello Nathan.’
‘I have to say I wasn’t expecting this.’
‘Me neither. So what brings you here?’
‘Too much castradina and a grappa too many.’
He shook his head. ‘There must be more to it than that. Something’s on your mind. I can tell. We should go for a drink.’
‘At this time of night?’
‘I’ll find somewhere that’ll let us in. Most people know me.’
‘Well, if I’m just imagining this, why not make it Florian’s?’
He sucked his teeth. ‘That’s a little too expensive. Even in your imagination. Besides, it’s Sunday. Casanova’s always there, holding court. Just showing off, if you ask me. He’s a terrible old bore and I’ve heard all his stories before. How about Quadri?’
‘Excellent. Do you think they’ll let me in in pyjamas?’ A thought struck me. ‘That’s a point. I never wear pyjamas. What am I doing in pyjamas?’
He sighed. ‘Nathan, I’m a long-dead painter from five hundred years ago. What you choose to wear in your subconscious is up to you. Now come on.’
’So what are we drinking?’
‘I’ll have a small glass of red. It’s late, even for me. How about you?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe a Bellini would be appropriate?’
He grimaced. ‘I don’t think so. I gave decades of artistic service to this city. I’d hoped to be commemorated by something rather better than a fizzy drink.’
‘Oh. Okay then. I’ll have a small red as well.’
‘Two small reds it shall be. My treat.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course. Don’t worry I’ve had a tab here for nearly five hundred years. They’re not showing any signs of calling it in yet. So come on, Nathan. Tell me your problems.’
‘Where to start? Well first of all, I don’t understand why you turned up? I mean, why would my subconscious conjure up Giovanni Bellini to pour my heart out to?’
‘Well, who else would you have chosen?’
‘I dunno. Maybe Myrna Loy? Ingrid Bergman?’ I clicked my fingers. ‘Dave Brock!’
Giovanni frowned. ‘Who?’
‘Oh, never mind. I don’t understand it though.’
‘Well, we have a bit of history together Nathan. My painting in the Valier chapel. You pushed a cigarette into it once if I’m not mistaken.’
‘A copy! It was a copy!’
‘A very good copy, though.’ He wagged a finger at me. ‘That was rather naughty of you.’
‘I’m sorry.’ A thought struck me. ‘Hey, I don’t suppose you know where the original is?’
‘Not at the moment. But I imagine those responsible will be joining us – on our side, if you see what I mean – in the not too distant future.’
‘You think they’ll tell you where it is?’
‘Eventually. Caravaggio tells me he has something unpleasant planned for them. He hates art thieves.’
‘You know Caravaggio?’
‘Of course. Good company when he’s sober. But he’s a nasty drunk. Oh, and it goes without saying, one should never play tennis against him.’ He winced. Just ever so slightly.
A handsome young man with long flowing locks clapped my companion on the back. Giovanni squeezed his hand. ’Ciao ,Giorgio.’
They exchanged a smile and a nod before the young man’s attention was distracted by the sight of a pretty girl at the other end of the room. He gave an apologetic shrug, and squeezed his way through the crowd to her, running his hands through his hair to be absolutely sure of presenting as bella a figura as possible.
‘Friend of yours?’, I said.
‘Giorgione. He might have been my best student. Always had an eye for the ladies. I always thought that would get him into trouble. And sure enough, it did.’
‘He died of the plague, didn’t he? He contracted it from his lover. At least, that’s what Vasari says.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, Vasari. I’d take anything he says with a pinch of salt. But there’s some truth in it.’ He looked across the room to where the young girl was blushing, as Giorgione leaned in for a kiss. Giovanni shook his head. ‘Poor Giorgio. She’ll be the death of him.’
I looked around. I’d been unaware of the sheer weight of people before, and, for a moment, I felt uneasy. The only face coverings to be seen were Carnival masks, and social distancing – particularly in young Giorgione’s case – was not being treated as a priority.
Giovanni caught the expression in my eyes. ‘What are you thinking, Nathan?’
‘I’m thinking that having a drink, at Quadri, in pyjamas, with Giovanni Bellini feels bizarrely normal.’
‘Perhaps it is. Given the past few years you’ve had. That everyone’s had.’
‘Yep. My subconscious dredging up a long-dead artist as a drinking buddy is what we now call the New Normal.’
He smiled. ‘It’ll pass, Nathan. All this.’
I shook my head. ‘It doesn’t feel like it, Giovanni. Sometimes it feels like it’ll never be normal again. I’m one of the lucky ones, I know. But I’ve had to deliver bad news to people. And I’m tired of that. Just so tired of that.
‘I remember when it all started. All those signs in people’s windows. Tutto andrà bene. “Everything will be all right”. And for those first few months, just sitting at home, it seemed we had all the time in the world. But we didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t time being given to us, it was time being stolen from us. And now I’m thinking about Dario and his family. About Vally’s parents. About people growing older and that we might not be able to see them for much longer. About not being able to be there when they need us. And right now, all I want is for Dario and Vally and Emily and Marta to be able to sit around a table at Christmas and just do normal, silly stuff and I’m wondering if…’
Giovanni frowned. ‘Enough of the IFs Nathan.’
I smiled. ‘Do you know my wife by any chance?’
’Well perhaps you should listen to her.’ He reached over and shook me by the shoulder, ever so gently. ‘There’ll be other Christmases, Nathan.’
‘You’re right, of course.’ I took a deep breath. ’But so many people have died, Giovanni.’
He nodded. ‘I know.’
‘And more people are going to die. Aren’t they?’
He nodded again. ‘Yes. Yes, they are.’
‘But it isn’t – ‘
‘Fair. I know. Of course it isn’t.’ He paused. ‘What do you want me to say, Nathan?’
‘Tell me it’s going to be all right, Giovanni.’
‘It wouldn’t mean much coming from me. I’m just a long-dead painter.’
‘I know, but I’ve said those words to so many people over the past two years I’m not sure if I believe them any more. I’d just like someone to say them to me, you know? Is it going to be all right?’
‘Oh Nathan.’ He tapped me on the chest. ‘I think you know.’ He smiled and reached across the table, pulling me close to him. Then he leant over and whispered in my ear. He sat back in his chair, but not before jabbing me in the chest once again. ‘I think you know,’ he repeated.
Something was pressing down on my chest. No, more than that. Not pressing, but pushing at me.
I opened my eyes. Gramsci, pleased to have got a reaction, gave a miaow before prodding at me once more.
I closed my eyes again, wanting to hold on to the dream before it slipped away forever. But it was no use. This was just with a paw, a warning prod. Ignore it for much longer and claws would be involved.
I sighed, and sat up in bed as best I could with Gramsci’s weight on top of me. ‘I guess that means it’s time for your breakfast, eh?’
Fede stirred beside me and yawned. ‘Oh, is that you getting up?’
‘I guess I am.’
‘Are you going to feed Unfriendly Cat?’
‘I think I’ll have to.’
‘Could you make me a cup of tea?’
‘I could do that as well.’
‘Oh, and you could make yourself a cup of coffee as well if you like.’
‘Well thanks. That’s very kind. I’ll try to remember that.’
I kissed the back of her neck and closed my eyes. And just for a moment I was back in Quadri, where a smiling Giovanni Bellini had leaned across the table and whispered in my ear.
Gramsci prodded me once more, claws out this time, and I gave a little yelp that turned into a laugh.
Fede opened an eye, and looked up at me smiling down at her. ‘You’re unusually happy for this time of the morning,’ she said.
I slipped out of bed, and tucked Gramsci under my arm, his little legs scrabbling away in indignation.
‘I think I am,’ I said. ‘I just met with an old friend.’ I leaned down to kiss her. ‘He told me everything was going to be all right.’
In case you’re wondering
A few years ago, I was asked to talk about my books to a group of high school students. We read through various parts of The Venetian Game together, I got them to act out a couple of scenes and then I set them a challenge : whoever wrote the best “missing scene” from the book would get a credit in the upcoming Venetian Masquerade.
Elena, Sebastiano and Vera came up with the idea of a meeting between Nathan and a time-travelling Giovanni Bellini in St Mark’s Square, an idea so delightful I thought I really should use it myself. This is my attempt. If they ever read it, I hope they’ll think I did it justice.
You’ll notice that this doesn’t fit into Nathan’s timeline as it stands at present. Is it ‘canon’? Quite simply, it is if you want it to be.
Wishing you all, wherever you are, a happy and peaceful Christmas. Tutto andrà bene.
It’s late November, and I’m a bit poorly. No, not man-flu poorly, just aware of things not being quite right and – crucially – my temperature is just above 37.5 which means I’m not allowed to go into work. So I’ve been catching up on some much needed sleep, thrown a lot of balls for Mimi and sent off a proposal for Nathan #7 (coming in 2023). But I’m still cooking, because cooking nearly always makes me feel better, and we also have a fridge full of veggies to use up.
I’ll be honest, it’s not my favourite vegetable to work with. A single lapse of concentration, a lid on the blender that isn’t quite fixed down properly, and your kitchen will look like Hannibal Lecter’s basement. However, Caroline had bought a bag of them for this excellent Nigel Slater recipe here :-
– and I still had a few to use up. So tonight I made a Beetroot and Goat’s Cheese Risotto.
1 Beetroot (small/medium – you really don’t need any more) 100g goat’s cheese 125g risotto rice (variety as you prefer) 1/2 litre light chicken stock 1/2 onion 1/2 carrot 1 small stalk celery
Bottle of prosecco.
Method (for 2)
I cooked this – appropriately to King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King.
1) Heat your oven to 200C. Pour two glasses of the prosecco, one for you and one for the person for whom you cook. If you’re on your own remember to halve the amounts. Except for the prosecco, obviously… 2) Peel and cube your beetroot, wrap in foil with a slug of olive oil, and stick it in the oven. 3) You have a bit of time now, so make a proper soffritto of onion, carrot and celery (I don’t think this one needs garlic) in a mixture of oil and butter. When they’re ready, chuck your rice in and allow the grains to toast. Throw in an additional glass of prosecco. Do not forget to continue drinking the one you’ve poured. 4) Heat the stock up and do the usual risotto thing with it. 5) After about 30 minutes, the beetroot should be suitably softened. Stick it in a blender along with a good measure of stock. MAKE SURE THE COVER IS SECURE. Get ready to blend it. HAVE YOU MADE SURE THE COVER IS SECURE? Good. Blend it to a liquid. Draw sigh of relief that your kitchen has been spared. 6) Add the blended beetroot to your risotto, add half the cheese, and season. Keep it cooking, adding the remainder of the stock as necessary. 7) When it’s almost – but not quite – perfect, stir in a knob of butter, take it off the heat, cover and rest for two minutes. 8) Uncover, give it a good stir, and decant into warm bowls. Tear/dice/scoop (as appropriate) the rest of the goat’s cheese over the top and just stick in the warm oven for a couple of minutes to allow it to melt. 9) Eat and enjoy, with a nice glass/bottle of red to hand.
This takes a bit of prep due to roasting the beetroot, but time it right and you can probably complete this in about one hour, or, as I prefer to say, 1.5 Courts of the Crimson King. It’s a warming, savoury and unctuous autumnal dish.
I haven’t been to the Rialto Market for months, and it’s a delight to be back. The sun is shining on the Grand Canal, the market is busy but not ridiculously so, and it’s a pleasure just to stroll around.
I go to what was once my regular fish stall (since we moved to Dorsoduro Ibuy my fish on Giudecca) and ask for 500g of Sicilian gamberi rossi. This is more than I need, but I feel a bit guilty about not having been here in so long. I could, I suppose, make two meals out of these, but I suspect I won’t.
I move on to the vegetable stalls, one of which is now a veritable treasure chest of mushrooms. They’re all there. Pioppini, chiodini, ones I don’t even know the name of and, of course, porcini. A sign that autumn has arrived. The guy tries to sell me a kilo (at a very reasonable price) but there’s no way I’ll be able to use them all in time. We both settle for a half kilo. I really will get two meals out of them.
Tonight I’m going to cook lasagne with porcini, mozzarella and prawns. Now, I’ve mentioned this before in a previous blog but this time, I think, it’s worth recording the whole recipe.
Ingredients (for two)
500g (unshelled) of red Sicilian prawns – well, no, you don’t need to be that precious about it and this is far too much anyway. Shall we say perhaps 300g of ‘some prawns’?
250g of porcini. This is pretty much exactly right.
One medium sized ball of mozzarella.
Lasagne sheets (as many as necessary)
Some grated Parmesan
And that’s it!
Hurray! There’s a new Hawkwind album in the world, so I cooked this to Somnia.
2) Gently clean your porcini (don’t soak them), slice them into medium-sized chunks and let them sizzle in some butter. We want them to be nicely browned here.
3) While your mushrooms are frying, shell and clean your prawns. If they’re small – as mine were – this will take some time. No matter. Make a spritz, reflect on what a cracking album Somnia is, and think ahead to how good this lasagne is going to be. Oh, and let the oven heat up to 200 degrees.
4) When the prawns are – finally – shelled – toss them into the pan and let them cook for a minute or two. That’s all they’ll need. Season with salt and pepper.
5) Tear a mozzarella ball into chunks and prepare a baking dish with a little oil.
6) Build layers with the pasta sheets, the mozzarella, and the prawn/mushroom mix.
7) Scatter the parmesan on the top – a good crispy top layer will be nice – and put it in the oven to bake for 30 minutes or until the top is golden and crisp. You might want to let it rest for a minute or two until it stops bubbling furiously.
This, frankly, is a bit of a Taste Explosion and a nicely chilled cheap red goes very well with it.
If you can’t get hold of porcini, no matter. Regular mushrooms will do almost as well – you won’t get the massive umami kick but, on the other hand, you might get a little bit more of the flavour of the prawns. Whatever you decide, Buon appetito!
“Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me…”
Has any director ever had a better decade than Fritz Lang in the 1920s? Der müde Tod (“The Weary Death”, a far better title than the more prosaic “Destiny”) was his first masterpiece in a ten year period that brought us – amongst others – Die Nibelungen, Spies, Metropolis, Dr Mabuse and M. And it’s also a film with a Venetian connection. As we’ll find out, it might be cheating a bit to fit it into a series called “Venice in film”, but nevertheless I think it’s worth a mention.
The plot of Destiny is a simple one : a young couple, riding in a carriage, stop to pick up a stranger who, later that evening, spirits the young man away. Grief-stricken, the woman searches for him and finds that his soul is imprisoned in a walled garden belonging to the stranger who, of course, turns out to be Death. She begs to be reunited with her lover, and Death – perhaps now weary of his work – brings her to a hall full of burning candles. Each one is a human life, he explains, showing her three that have almost flickered out. If she can save one – just one – of those three lives through the power of love, the young man will be restored to her. And this leads us into three short tales, the second of which is set in Venice…
So why, then, are we cheating? Well, quite simply, there’s no actual Venice to be seen. There was no location filming involved and so the Venice we see is one created via Lang’s great art directors Walter Rohrig and Hermann Warm. So we see bridges, canals, a vera da pozzo, a gondola complete with felze, a Lion of St Mark – just enough to create a convincing sense of “Venetianess”. No, it’s not realistic, but that’s not what Lang is trying to do here.
The vignette is perhaps fifteen minutes in length; a dark, almost Shakespearean, love story set during Carnival which (SPOILER for 100 year old film) does not end well. There are a few historical references but they’re a bit confused – there’s a reference to the “Council of Fourteen” instead of the “Council of Ten” for example. No matter. The characters are sketched out quickly and efficiently, the plot is simple but effective and, really, fifteen minutes in Fritz Lang’s Venice is fifteen minutes well spent.
Lil Dagover, the female lead, had a long and distinguished career but is probably best remembered today for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Destiny, however, gives her a far more rewarding part and she’s absolutely terrific here. Further down the cast list is Rudolf Klein-Rogge (who himself had a small role in Caligari), a favourite of Lang’s, who would later feature as the sorcerer-scientist Rotwang in Metropolis and as the eponymous Dr Mabuse. But the film really belongs to the craggy-faced Bernhard Goetzke as Death, in a towering performance that, perhaps, prefigures Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Lang’s direction, aided by Fritz Arno Wagner’s cinematography, is exemplary.
So, should you see it? Well, in my humble opinion, it’s a timeless work of art by one of the great filmmakers of the twentieth century so – yes- absolutely, you should.
The great Dino Risi was a director more associated with commedia all’italiana than with the horror film And yet, in 1977, he made a deeply serious and effective piece of pure Venetian Gothic. Anima Persa (known elsewhere under the clunkingly literal title of The Forbidden Room) seems to be little known today, and that’s a great shame, because what we have here is a very classy example of gothic filmmaking.
Art student Tino arrives in Venice and goes to stay with uncle Fabio (Vittorio Gassman) and his noticeably younger wife Elisa (Catherine Deneuve).
Immediately, it becomes obvious that All Is Not As It Should Be. The relationship between Fabio and Elisa is cold and awkward, whilst, late at night, the sound of a piano can be heard from a mysterious locked room upstairs.
So far, so Gothic. However, the expected Big Reveal – the mad brother in the attic – happens surprisingly early, leaving the rest of the film to wallow in a suffocating Poe-like atmosphere of decadence, corruption and decay. There’s also a doll motif which very much seemed to be a theme in Italian horror in this period – think Deep Red, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Five Dolls for an August Moon and, well, other films with dolls, mannequins, or simply the word ‘doll’ in the title.
The denouement is, perhaps, not quite as surprising as all that. Nevertheless, the location filming is excellent, the sets are wonderful and Risi proves himself to be quite adept at this sort of thing including a couple of effective jump scares. There’s a good performance from Deneuve but, sadly, she’s dubbed and not very well. Gassman – one of the great Italian actors of his generation – is simply outstanding in his journey from cold respectability and manipulative bastardry to utter insanity.
Should you see it? I think so. It seems never to have been dubbed into English, however, so you will need to watch the Italian version. But if nothing else it’s a rare example of a horror film (and, really, what else can it be?) in which – spoiler – *nobody actually dies*, and it’s worth treasuring for that. Add to that the location filming and Gassman’s extraordinary performance and you have a film that’s well worth your time.
Apricots are up there with the Best of Fruit. Or, at least, they should be. Too often, they flatter to deceive and they’re just a little bit crunchy or just a little bit tasteless and, ultimately, just a little bit disappointing.
Have no fear, because this recipe is guaranteed to make the most of even the saddest of apricots, it will get loads of fruit into you, and it only takes about 15 minutes.
Ingredients (for 2)
About 10 apricots
Some natural yoghurt
Some honey (doesn’t have to be the best. Just some honey.)
4 or 5 biscuits (cinnamon would be ideal, speculoos/spekulatius style. But if all you have is the humble Hob Nob, then by all means give them a go. Rich Tea are probably a bit too austere).
This one is really quick. You’re not going to have time to listen to the Best of the Ramones, let alone Wagner, and, by the time it comes to cook this, the Spritz hour has passed. So maybe just have a small prosecco to hand.
1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
2. Whilst the oven is warming up, wash, halve and stone the apricots. Drizzle honey into the centre of each.
3. Put the apricots in the oven. They’re going to be in there for about 15 minutes.
4. In the meantime, take the biscuits and crush them. Don’t go mad…you don’t want them to be just a powder. Leave a few nice crunchy bits.
5. At this point you may drink the Prosecco.
6. By the time you’ve finished it, the apricots will probably be done. Tip them into a bowl and mash them to a puree with a fork.
7. Now this is the really cheffy bit! Take a Martini glass and build layers of apricot, yoghurt and biscuit; and then repeat. If you have over-enthusiastically crushed the biscuits, save the most powdery bits to sprinkle on top. You could try a mint or basil leaf on the top if you like, but I think we’re kind of getting into fusion cooking there. You don’t, strictly speaking, even have to have a Martini glass but, frankly, I think it’s worth investing in a set just to make this. And then you could have Martinis as well!
It should all look rather lovely and be intensely apricot-ey. And, given the amount of fruit, it’s possibly quite good for you as well! It’s a nice, easy dish that you can prep in advance for a dinner party or just throw together at the last minute. There is no better way of dealing with disappointing apricots!
I used to buy all my fresh fish at the Rialto Market but, since moving to Dorsoduro, I’ve changed to the fishmonger at Palanca on Giudecca. There are times that I miss the huge variety of choice at Rialto, but Palanca is a lot easier to get to and the guys there are a Great Bunch of Lads as well.
Inevitably, though, I always come back with more fish than I actually need. I once came back with ten red mullet instead of four, as they were about to close and said they’d do me a good deal if I took them all off their hands. Well, it would have been wasting money not to…
Similarly, I recently came back with a humungous piece of tuna that was way, way too much for a meal for two. Now fresh tuna is one of those things that – along with sardines – I think I could kind of just always eat. Nevertheless, it cost a bit and so I thought I should really try and get two meals out of it. So I trimmed away the leanest part of the steak, and griddled it as usual. The rest I put in the freezer for some occasion in the future.
Well, a couple of days ago Caroline arrived back from a day on the beach when I’d been hard at work upon the next book. Neither of us felt like going out, or pizza, and neither did I feel like Big Complicated Cooking. Fortunately, however, we had a packet of fresh gnocchi, the tuna (which I’d thought to take out earlier), and a few staples.
This, then, is a straightforward giovedìgnocchi dish which you can probably knock off in about thirty minutes.
Ingredients (serves two modestly hungry people)
250g fresh gnocchi (I’ve made my own in the past but, really, life is too short)
200g fresh tuna (or more, or less. This is not an exact science)
12 – 18 cherry tomatoes, halved (I started with 12 and decided that wasn’t enough halfway through)
2 tbsp capers, rinsed
12 black olives, stoned/sliced
Oh, this one is easy.
Put a healthy measure of olive oil in a deep pan, and fry the tomatoes for as long as you want. I like them nice and blackened and roasty-tasting. All of this adds plenty of extra flavour and helps to generate the sauce.
Put a pasta pan of salted water on to boil.
When you’re happy with the tomatoes, throw the gnocchi into the pasta pan. They’ll be done when they float to the surface (2-3 minutes)
Add the tuna, olives and capers to the tomatoes and turn up the heat. Keep everything moving around in that nice, tomato-ey sauce.
Drain the gnocchi, and add to the pan. Toss them around for a bit, just to make sure everything’s nicely coated in the sauce, and then dish up (I was going to say ‘plate up’ but, frankly, this isn’t a ‘plating up’ kind of dish). Some torn up basil leaves would have been good as well, but I’d forgotten we had any!
This is, in all modesty, frankly delicious. A chilled, budget red wine is an ideal accompaniment.
I think this might work equally well with swordfish. Indeed, I’m going to put it to the test tomorrow. You see, the last time I went to the fishmongers they had three nice chunky steaks remaining. I told them I only wanted two. They gave me a sad look and said surely I wasn’t going to leave one piece abbandonato…?
And so, of course, there is a spare swordfish steak in the freezer….
I don’t think anyone expected this but – yes – “The Venetian Legacy” had its moment in the sun of the Times Top 10 Paperback Fiction. And thank you all so, so much for that.
So, by way of thanks, here’s the Spotify playlist that serves as the soundtrack to “The Venetian Legacy”. Some of these were songs I had in mind whilst writing. And some were ones that came to mind later. You can decide which are which…
We begin, then, with Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro. It’s fun, it’s happy, it’s got a belter of a tune and it’s about a wedding! Of course we were going to begin with this one.
Track 2 is è Festa! by the great Italian prog band Premiata Forneria Marconi. We’ve moved on from the wedding itself to party time, and I can imagine Dario saying ‘hey, let’s play this one’. And Federica rolling her eyes…
Now we have a couple of gentle, summery tracks. The first is by Le Orme, Senti, L’estate che torna . Five years later, they’d be writing concept albums about binary planets, but they weren’t quite there in 1968. This is a very pretty little tune, and the accompanying video – bless them – is hilarious.
The laid-back mood continues with Hawkwind (no, seriously) – here in a mellow, almost jazzy mood – with the appropriately-titled City of Lagoons.
We then move on to what I think of as two character-driven pieces. The first – for “The Old Wolf” – is the partisan anthem Bella Ciao. This is my favourite version, and it’s by Italian folk-rockers Modena City Ramblers. The following number – and this one’s for Federica – is Dotti, Medici e Sapienti by the great Edoardo Bennato. If you’re wondering what this one’s doing here…it’s from a concept album about Pinocchio.
Back to more summery sounds, and Joe Satriani’s instrumental A Day at the Beach, followed by Pink Floyd at their gentlest and prettiest, with A Pillow of Winds. “Sleepy time, and I lie, with my love by my side, and she’s breathing low.” The music is by David Gilmour, and the lyrics – perhaps surprisingly – by Roger Waters…
Things start to get a bit more serious, and we have a funeral scene accompanied by Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. And then things start to get properly grim, kicking off with Blue Oyster Cult’s acerbic This Ain’t the Summer of Love.
Then we’re joined by our old friend Stelvio Cipriani, and the suite from the tough 70s thriller La polizia ha le mani legate, and the Alabama 3’s Woke up this morning, the theme tune to “The Sopranos”.
Now when I was younger, and grumpier, the soundtrack – and even the book – might have ended there. But I’m in my fifties now, and – SPOILERS – I appreciate the value of a good happy ending. We don’t get many of those in real life, and so I think they’re ever more important in fiction. Jovanotti’s Baciami ancora is the sound of being on holiday, of wondering whether to have one or two Negronis before dinner, and, ultimately, of wanting nothing more than to be with the one you love under the stars on a warm summer’s night. Sentimental, perhaps, but why not? It’s a honeymoon novel after all, and it deserves a lovely song like this to finish on.
With my thanks to you all, once again, and wishing you, wherever you are, happy walks in the sun in the not-too-distant future.
I know it’s fondly remembered but – whisper it – Anonimo Veneziano really isn’t a very good film.
The plot, if you don’t know it, is simple enough. Enrico (Tony Musante) invites his ex-wife Valeria (Florinda Bolkan) to visit him in Venice. They walk around, have lunch, he tells her he’s dying of a brain tumour. They walk around some more, go back to his apartment on Giudecca, have sex, walk around a bit more. And then, finally, Enrico conducts Alessandro Marcello’s concertofor oboe and strings in the church of San Vidal. Valeria, possibly realising she still loves him, leaves for her train.
Musante had just finished The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and, indeed, had previously worked with Bolkan on Metti, una sera a cena. Bolkan herself had worked with Visconti, and would go on to work with directors as wildly diverse as Vittorio de Sica and Lucio Fulci. The actors are not the problem here : the trouble is that the characters they inhabit are not particularly likeable and endless scenes of them fighting and then reconciling in the damp Venetian streets become wearing.
Of course, it looks good. But it’s not difficult to use Venice in the winter as a metaphor for death and decay. Nicolas Roeg, in Don’t Look Now, used it as part of a profound meditation on loss. Here it just seems like window dressing. Very pretty window dressing, of course, but that’s not enough.
The real star here – and perhaps the reason it’s so fondly remembered – is Stelvio Cipriani’s score and, in particular, the main theme. It’s a lovely thing, and manages to carry more emotional weight than the film it accompanies.
Do you need to see it? Well, it’s just over 90 minutes, you see a lot of Venice (albeit in a fairly random order) and there’s Cipriani’s music. I’d say it’s worth a watch. Just don’t expect too much.