Venice is a sleepy town. Entertainment is neighbourhood gossip or maybe a sudden twist in weather patterns; flooding in July, say, or heavy fog in September. By ten o’clock at night the streets are empty, in an eerie ghost-like kind of a way. Everyone is in bed. I love that about the city. Secretly, I too love nothing more than an early night, with a gripping novel and a mug of hot, sugary tea.
That said, one night a year – for one night only – Venice parties. And, hell – it parties like there’s no tomorrow. I party with it too. Naturally. It would be rude not to.
Preparations begin at dawn – and with them the crescendo: people hang brightly coloured lanterns from street lights, and set up trestle tables along the waterfront; the gingham check tablecloths come out, as do the rickety chairs and boxes of wine. Slowly, the Giudecca Canal fills with boats – sailing yachts, small speedboats, and repurposed wooden barges; all dressed up with fairy lights and posies of greenery – olive branches and the like. Music plays – alla boom box; and people dance – in a nonchalant, devil may care kind of a way. The anticipation builds. You can feel it, almost tangible – impatient and expectant – in the hot, muggy air of a midsummer’s night. As dusk falls and the sky grows darker, you dance harder – maybe a few wild souls might jump into the water. We eat, we drink and we make merry. Until the golden rain falls. Literally. Fireworks begin and for nearly an hour, silence – muted awe punctuated only by the gunfire bangs and the oohs and aahs of delight that greet them – holds the city. Like magic, a kind of alchemy as everyone comes together in this one moment of time. If you’ve never been – you must come. Next year – third Saturday in July.
You see – the third Saturday of July is the Feast of the Holy Redeemer, the feast of the Redentore. Bacchic and wonderfully frenzied – Venetians have been celebrating it for longer than either you or I can remember. And beyond the wild dancing and the prosecco, there’s a story; one that begins centuries ago, with a terrible black plague and a desperate promise. The Redentore is a holiday rooted in ritual and tradition.
Many moons ago, in the sixteenth century, disease was rampant: people were dying by the thousand each day; so the city of Venice promised to build a church – as magnificent as they could conceive – a votive offering for the health of its people. A temple rose above the Giudecca Canal – proud and glistening white, with a splendid Palladian facade and Tintoretto interiors – and the plague melted away. The Church still stands: a testament to faith, a symbol of redemption, a reminder that where there is desperation, there is always hope.
And Venetians still remember. After the party, on the Sunday morning, the city migrates to that very church, across a floating wooden bridge – built each year specially for that very occasion – to light a candle and to say their prayers. Each step, each ritual, each flickering candle is filled with hope – because legend has it, that if you light a candle in the Church of the Redentore on the Feast of the Holy Redeemer – it will bring health and happiness to you and to the ones that you love through the coming year.
To me it’s a very special place. The Church of the Redentore is where my husband and I married, five years ago this September. So when I light my candle, I am thankful for my good health and that of my family, I am hopeful for good luck in the year to come, but above all I am deeply grateful for the love that I have found with him. You see, to say that I am lucky to have him feels flippant, and to attribute our devotion to some sort of greater cosmic plan feels contrived – so I end up by saying nothing at all. But the truth is that life without my husband is inconceivable and life with him is happiness.
Redemption and thanksgiving aside, a note on the food. Because no feast day should pass without a feast. Traditionally the Redentore is potluck: you eat on a boat or on the street and share your neighbour’s food. A picnic of sorts – but with all the trappings of a banquet. The menu is chaotic and improvised and all the more wonderful for that. That said, there are some dishes that it simply wouldn’t be Redentore without: sarde in soar – pan fried sardines cooked with caramelised onion, pine nuts and sweet raisins – for example; bigoli in salsa – thick Venetian spaghetti in a light anchovy sauce; and watermelon – oh-so wonderfully refreshing in the July heat. We like to eat branzino al sale – sea bass baked whole in a salt crust. It is a beautiful way of cooking a beautiful fish. The salt crust – which you make by mixing rough sea salt with water – lightly steams the fish so that when you peel it away and fillet the fish, it’s soft and tender, and cooked to perfection. You can’t taste the salt, it just melts away, but if you do quite like the flavour – which, as it happens, I do – then scale the fish before encasing it in the salt. That allows the salt to permeate the fish, ever so slightly and gives you a delicate flavour. Then I drizzle liberally with olive oil. Buonissimo!
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Clean and fillet the fish. Pour the salt into a large mixing bowl and add the water; use your hands to mix it together so that you have a thick, paste-like consistency. Line a roasting tray with baking paper and spreads the salt paste over paper – in an even layer, roughly 1cm to 2cms thick. Now lay the fish on to of the salt, fill their cavities with fresh herbs and cover them with the rest of the salt, pressing gently so that the crust holds.