At home with Emiko Davies: from the canals of Venice to Canberra

Emiko Davies at her family's home in Canberra, a long way from Italy. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Emiko Davies at her family's home in Canberra, a long way from Italy. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Emiko Davies hasn't been back to Canberra for close to three years but today she's in the kitchen of her parents' home in Narrabundah and it's like she never left. Her daughter's Mariu and Luna are in the garden chasing the chickens Mocha and Toffee, there's a batch of sweet bussolai cooling on the kitchen table, photographs of the family adorn the fridge alongside shopping lists and reminders.

While she's been living in Italy since 2005, cookbook author, food journalist and food blogger, is proud of her Canberra connections. Her parents Ian and Sumie were diplomats and the family travelled extensively during her childhood, living in China and visiting family in Japan, but Canberra was the family base.

"Mind you when I finished school all I wanted to do was get as far away as possible," she laughs.

Her studies took her to the United States, studying fine art at the Rhode Island School of Design, in her third year she travelled to Florence, Italy, and fell in love with the city, the people, the food, and she spent the next few years planning a way to get back. She did, fell in love again, this time with a handsome sommelier, Marco Lami, who was to become her husband and father to their daughters, now nine and nearly four. They've just renovated a 200-year-old apartment in the hilltop town of San Miniato, where Lami was born, 40 minutes outside of Florence. Italy is home now.

Ian's been doing the cooking since she arrived. She doesn't mind that.

"Dad never cooked while we were growing up but he's retired now and he's got a good rhythm going," she says.

"He'll make a Japanese curry and put the rice cooker on, Mum says he does that better than her now, or he has this simple Moroccan chicken dish we all like.

"I'll offer to cook but he has it sorted, it's been really nice actually. I might teach him a few more Italian dishes to add something into the repertoire."

Food and family has always been at the heart of her writing. She started her blog 12 years ago, mainly as a creative outlet at the time.

"Food blogs were still quite newish back in 2010, I wondered who would ever read it, but that didn't matter. I just wanted somewhere to put the recipes and the stories and things down for me to remember and share with family and friends. It was like a diary in some ways."

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In 2016 she published her first cookbook, Florentine: The true cuisine of Florence, followed by Acquacotta (2017), Tortellini at Midnight (2019) and Torta della Nonna (2021).

Her latest is Cinnamon and Salt: Cicchetti in Venice: Small Bites from the Lagoon City, a total "pandemic project", she says.

"My friend Rosa Salzberg is an historian, her speciality is Venice, renaissance Venice, she's from Melbourne and we met in Florence, and we'd been talking about writing a book about cicchetti for a while.

"When lockdown finished, Italy had one of the world's first harsh lockdowns, once we were allowed out of our homes, we met up in Venice with our families for the weekend.

"It was the beginning of summer, and Venice had no tourists at all, there was something about being in Venice at this moment in history, it was really special, and I was posting photos on Instagram, it was just beautiful."

She hadn't mentioned the book idea to her publishers but when she got home there was an email from her publisher who was captivated by the photographs. Why don't you do a book about cicchetti, they said.

"Cicchetti is literally a small bite," she says. "What makes cicchetti particularly Venetian is the way you eat it, standing, at any time of the day, most traditional cicchetti bars are open at 8.30 in the morning.

Cinnamon and Salt: Cicchetti in Venice, small bites from the lagoon city, by Emiko Davies. Hardie Grant Books, $40.

Cinnamon and Salt: Cicchetti in Venice, small bites from the lagoon city, by Emiko Davies. Hardie Grant Books, $40.

"Venice is a city where you get around on foot, you're walking, to the market, or work, or home, and you'll pass by a bar, spot people you know, you'll stop, have a bite, a wine, you'll go from one place to the next. It's a very social thing, a very nice way to explore Venice and eat the Venetian way."

In the meantime she's in Narrabundah. The biscuits are delicious, her father as dinner sorted, Luna is showing me the raspberry bush where the chickens lay their eggs, Mariu laughs when I ask her if Mocha and Toffee lay eggs with flavours that match their names.

Food, of any kind, is meant to bring people together, at kitchen tables, in backyards, alongside the canals of Venice, in Tuscan villages.

  • Cinnamon and Salt: Cicchetti in Venice: Small Bites from the Lagoon City, by Emiko Davies. Hardie Grant Books, $40.
Sarde in saor (Sweet-and-sour fried sardines). Picture: Emiko Davies

Sarde in saor (Sweet-and-sour fried sardines). Picture: Emiko Davies

Sarde in saor (Sweet-and-sour fried sardines)

My favourite of all of Venice's cicchetti is also among the most classic on offer at any bàcaro and is one of the traditional dishes that Venetians take on their boats with them, along with Bovoletti and roast duck for the Festa del Redentore, a joyful festival held on the third Sunday of July that celebrates the end of the Plague of 1576.

Preparing food in saor, the technique of marinating fried food in vinegar and other ingredients, was a favourite Venetian way of conserving food for long trips (Venetian gastronome and actor Giuseppe Maffi oli called it cibo dei marinai, sailor's food) and it can be likened to Portuguese escabeche and Japanese nanbanzuke. Although sardines are Venice's most popular ingredient to prepare in saor, you can also find it with scampi, sole, plump prawns, freshwater fish such as carp and trout, chicken, or vegetables such as radicchio. Because it is a dish that lends itself well to being prepared in advance, in saor is a preparation that Ines de Benedetti in her Italian Jewish cookbook Poesia Nascosta: Le ricette della cucina tradizionale ebraica italiana (2013) writes "was never missing on Saturdays in the homes of good Jews". Venice's Jewish quarter is where you can find fried eggplant or pumpkin in saor, with finely chopped mint.

The recipe for sarde in saor can be traced to the 1300s in one of Italy's earliest known cookbooks, the Libro per Cuoco by the so-called anonimo veneziano, the "anonymous Venetian". It calls for sliced white onions cooked in oil and vinegar topping fried sardines, kept in a terracotta dish. Although the recipe hasn't changed much since then, there are always variations based on personal preferences and family traditions. My friend Valeria Necchio makes hers without "much adornment", as she says in her cookbook, Veneto, but with a touch of sugar together with the vinegar. Another friend of mine makes it with slices of lemon instead of vinegar and without the raisins or pine nuts. At the well-known bàcaro Al Mascaron, the dish has the addition of fresh bay leaves, coriander seeds and white, pink and black pepper - and they do a version with veal liver too, which has a touch of fresh ginger in it. In Mari Salvatori de Zuliani's classic Venetian cookbook A Tola Co I Nostri Veci, she supplies two recipes, one with a marinade of onions, vinegar and sugar, the other with the addition of sultanas, pine nuts and cinnamon. She notes that sultanas and pine nuts are usually added in the winter, while the summer version doesn't need them. And sometimes - for those who truly love the sweet part of sweet-and-sour - you'll even find it with the addition of candied citron.

Ingredients

12 fresh sardines, cleaned, heads and backbones removed, butterflied

1 1/2 tablespoons plain flour, or enough for dusting

vegetable oil, for frying

40g raisins

60ml white wine, or water

1 large white onion, peeled and thinly sliced

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

125ml white-wine vinegar

pinch of ground cloves (optional)

1 tsp whole coriander seeds, crushed (optional)

pinch of sugar (optional)

1 1/2 tbsp pine nuts

fresh or toasted sliced baguette or grilled polenta, to serve

Method

1. Dust the sardine fillets in the flour and shallow-fry in oil for one minute each side over a medium-high heat until golden and crisp. Season with salt and set aside on some kitchen paper to drain until needed.

2. Soak the raisins in the white wine for 15 minutes to soften them. Meanwhile, cook the onion gently in a frying pan with the olive oil just until it is soft and transparent, about 10 minutes on a low heat, then add the vinegar, the wine from the raisins (set the raisins aside), some freshly ground pepper and the spices, if using. Let it simmer gently for about 10 minutes, then remove from the heat. Taste the mixture; if it is too sharp, stir in a pinch of sugar.

3. In a small terrine or deep dish, place a layer of sardines, top them with some of the onions, some of the raisins and the pine nuts, and continue layering until the sardines are used up, then top with a layer of onions, raisins and pine nuts, and finish with the rest of the vinegar sauce poured over the top. Cover and allow to marinate for at least 24 hours in the fridge before serving. This keeps well in the fridge for up to one week.

4. These are best eaten at room temperature, removing from the fridge an hour before you want to enjoy them. Serve the sardines on slices of toasted or fresh baguette, or grilled polenta.

Serves 4 as a light lunch, or makes 12 cicchetti.

Bussolai (S-biscuits from Burano). Picture: Emiko Davies

Bussolai (S-biscuits from Burano). Picture: Emiko Davies

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Bussolai (S-biscuits from Burano)

The name of these biscuits that are associated with the colourful island of Burano comes from the Venetian word buso, or buca in Italian, meaning hole. The original bussolai were made simply of bread dough (water, flour, yeast and salt) and shaped into the characteristic ring and baked, after which they could easily last three months if kept well in a biscuit tin - no wonder, then, they were the preferred snack of the mariners and fishermen from Burano.

These beloved, long-lasting bread rings were eaten by all Venetians (they are also known as buranei, or buranelli, referring to their origins on the island of Burano), as they were eventually prepared by the bakeries run by Serenissima apparently as early as the 15th century. They took the place of regular fresh bread during meals and were dipped into wine.

But bussolai today are usually in the form of sweet biscuits, rich in egg yolks, buttery and sweet (a recipe for bussolà in the fourteenth-century Libro per Cuoco written by "a Venetian cook" describes a baked good somewhere between a bread and a biscuit, with eggs, salt, flour and honey). They can still be found in rings, but also in an S-shape, according to some stories, at the request of a restaurateur on Burano, which made them easier to dip into small glasses of sweet wine - these S-shaped ones have since become more popular.

Carol Field has a recipe for buranelli in her brilliant book The Italian Baker, where her irresistible introduction reads, "Close your eyes and picture the water stretching away from Venice, past the palazzi and gondolas on the Grand Canal, and think about finding your way to the island of Burano that lies beyond Venice, where these S-shaped buttery cookies are made". She creams 125g soft, unsalted butter with almost double the amount of sugar and five egg yolks, perfuming the batter generously with two teaspoons vanilla extract and the zest of two lemons, adding flour and salt and shaping into Ss. It is quite similar to the way they are made at Cantina Do Spade, an excellent bàcaro near the Rialto market, which is where I have adapted this recipe from.

Ingredients

100g unsalted butter, softened

100g sugar

zest of 2 lemons

4 egg yolks

250g plain flour

Method

1. Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl and add the sugar, lemon zest, and then the egg yolks, one at a time. Beat until you have a smooth and creamy mixture. Fold in the flour and mix carefully (I use a spatula here) until the dough comes together. Cover the bowl and place the dough in the fridge to chill for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

2. Heat the oven to 180C. Split the dough into four pieces and roll these into long snakes, about the width of your finger. Break off 15cm lengths and form into an inverted S or a ring shape - or both. Bake until just cooked - about 15 minutes. They should still be pale, just starting to turn golden. Place on a wire baking rack, where they will harden as they cool.

Makes 16.

Schie fritte (Fried Venetian prawns). Picture: Emiko Davies

Schie fritte (Fried Venetian prawns). Picture: Emiko Davies

Schie fritte (Fried Venetian prawns)

This dish is also known simply as polenta e schie, indicating how important it is that these prawns, tiny grey shrimp that are fished out of the Venetian lagoon, are served together with polenta. There is something really satisfying about this contrast of textures: the soft, velvety bed of polenta topped with the incredibly crunchy prawns, which are eaten - strictly - heads, shells and all. No Venetian would bother to sit and peel these tiny prawns one by one, it would be unthinkable. But also, you'd really miss that crunch, which is vital to the whole experience of eating schie.

Note that this is traditionally eaten with white polenta, which is a soft, floppy style of polenta, but you could also eat these schie just as they are as a delicious crunchy snack, like chips, perfect for aperitivo. This amount would easily serve at least four people as part of a meal, but if serving smaller plates as cicchetti, you could stretch it to eight.

Ingredients

500g live, very small prawns

1 1/2 tbsp plain flour, for dusting

vegetable oil, for frying

creamy white polenta or polenta crostini, to serve

Method

1. Place the whole prawns in a large bowl and dust with the flour, mixing gently so they are all covered lightly. Pour the vegetable oil into a wide frying pan with at least 2cm oil and heat over a medium heat to 180C.

2. Fry the prawns in a few batches - they should only take about 30 seconds to cook (they will turn orange and the flour will become crisp and golden). Drain on absorbent kitchen paper and sprinkle generously with salt. When they are all ready, serve them with hot, creamy white polenta, or with grilled white polenta crostini.

Note: You need really tiny prawns for this that can be bought live, ideally, or are extremely fresh, as they are eaten whole. A very close substitute for schie would be school prawns in Australia, which are equally small, wild-caught prawns often found in estuaries. Do not use already cooked or peeled prawns for this.

Serves 6-8 as antipasto or cicchetti.

Mostarda di carote con senape e prosciutto arrosto (Carrot mostarda with mustard and roast ham). Picture: Emiko Davies

Mostarda di carote con senape e prosciutto arrosto (Carrot mostarda with mustard and roast ham). Picture: Emiko Davies

Mostarda di carote con senape e prosciutto arrosto (Carrot mostarda with mustard and roast ham)

This curious carrot mostarda was one of the rst recipes from Mari Salvatori de Zuliani's cookbook that I wanted to cook. She describes this as an old recipe to make in the month of September, using many lemons and much, much more sugar and a low, slow, four-hour cooking time. She pairs this with boiled meat, as mostarda often is. I think it is lovely with prosciutto arrosto or prosciutto cotto, which is cooked ham as opposed to cured as prosciutto crudo is. Use a top-quality, freshly sliced, o-the-bone ham.

You could also see this as a sort of in saor recipe if you perhaps leave out the sugar, but add raisins and pine nuts to it for sweetness - in fact, this is another Venetian Jewish recipe recounted in the Slow Food Ricette di Osteria del Veneto, a dish for celebrating the New Year for the symbolic happy golden colour and shape of the carrot slices.

This will make enough mostarda for 12 cicchetti. But if you have any leftovers, try it out next to a roast or on sandwiches. Also see variations, below, for more ideas.

Ingredients

Carrot mostarda:

400g carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

zest and juice of 2 lemons

2 tbsp red-wine vinegar

100g sugar

To assemble each cicchetto:

1 thick slice fresh or toasted baguette, for crostini

1/4 tsp hot English mustard, or to taste

2 tbsp mascarpone, or cream cheese

1 tbsp carrot mostarda (see above)

1 thin slice roast ham

Method

1. Combine the carrots, lemon zest and juice and vinegar in a small saucepan with 500ml water and bring to the boil. Add the sugar and, once it has dissolved, turn the heat to a low simmer, cover, and let cook slowly for one to one and a half hours. The carrots should be soft and the liquid should be reduced and syrupy. Once made, the mostarda keeps well, like home-made jam, in an airtight jar in the fridge.

2. To assemble the cicchetti, on each slice of bread spread the mustard, followed by the mascarpone, then the carrot mostarda and top with a slice of roast ham.

Variations: You could substitute the roast ham with roast beef or, for a vegetarian version, try the carrot mostarda with gorgonzola or another strong blue cheese (skipping the mustard and mascarpone). I had something similar at the popular bàcaro Vino Vero - a warm crostino topped with mostarda and a slice of gooey washed-rind cheese.

Makes 290g or a small jar of mostarda.

This story At home with Emiko Davies: from the canals of Venice to Canberra first appeared on The Canberra Times.