Fans of the Guido Brunetti series of crime novels by Donna Leon must be delighted this month. First came the publication of A Question of Belief, the 19th story about the gentle Venetian Commissario of Police. Then there is the appearance of A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti by Roberta Pianaro. While an earlier work, Toni Sepeda’s Brunetti’s Venice: Walks through the Novels takes readers on a visual tour of the canal city, this culinary spinoff mines the rich theme of eating and family life that runs through Leon’s writing.
You can tell a great deal about veteran crime fighters from their diets. Janet Evanovich’s US bounty hunter Stephanie Plum forages one end of the food spectrum, existing on fried chicken from “Cluck-in-a-Bucket”, donuts and peanut butter sandwiches that she shares with her hamster. Plum survives only because she eats hearty meals occasionally at her parents’ house.
Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy lives in inner Sydney and Thai takeaways, pub bistros and coffee shops provide reasonable fare for the ageing private detective recovering from major heart surgery. Any food book inspired by the Cliff Hardy series is more likely to be a guide to the eateries of Glebe, Newtown and Darlinghurst than a collection of recipes.
Brunetti eats most meals at home, where his wife Paola caters for him and their two teenagers. Indeed, Paola, daughter of Venetian aristocracy and lecturer in the novels of Henry James, is so well organised that she has time to prepare both lunches and dinners. Brunetti is fortunate that Venice is small and that he mostly walks to work.
Brunetti is no romantic. Donna Leon is even more of a realist. Brunetti’s cases usually involve the investigation of violent acts or corruption or both. He does not use violence to solve cases but he has reached an accommodation with the systemic corruption around him. He plays his ambitious superior Vice-Questore Patta skilfully and when he requests the secretary Signorina Elettra to find information using computers or contacts, he avoids asking about her sources. Some cases reach completely satisfactory resolutions but often, Brunetti settles for outcomes that are more practical than ideal.
Brunetti’s home is a refuge. He confides often in Paola, and while he seeks to protect Raffi and Chiara from the evil which he encounters at the Questura and across the city, the four engage in some heated discussions about broader social issues including justice, equality, the environment and ethical behaviour. There is something very natural about deep discussions over good food.
Brunetti makes a nice contrast to Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano of Sicily, probably better known through the television series than through the books. Montalbano has a troubled relationship with his distant Livia. While he eats very well, his meals seldom have a family setting. Montalbano indulges in local seafood at various restaurants where he insists on eating in silence and his housekeeper leaves tasty meals for him, but these he mainly consumes alone watching the television news and despairing of Italians’ antisocial behaviour. Paola on the other hand, provides Brunetti with a richly varied diet, and they often have vegetarian meals.
The recipes by Roberta Pianaro are all appealing. They have a directness and simplicity characteristic of all good cookbooks. The antipasti dishes feature corn, chickpeas, zucchini, aubergine, snails, shrimp, sardine and squid. The “primi piatti” provide enough pasta, rice, bean and lentil dishes for a month of tasty variety. Again vegetables are prominent. Broccoli, asparagus, aubergine, artichokes, peppers, olives, tomatoes, spinach, peas, celery, leeks and mushroom dominate while there are tasty dishes with bacon, mussels, clams and prosciutto as well. Then there are separate sections on vegetables, seafood, meat and desserts.
Inevitably perhaps, this cookbook raises critical questions. A couple of contexts show A Taste of Venice to be an excellent addition to the culinary universe. It will go on my kitchen bookshelf with a couple of other “crime” recipe books: The Nero Wolfe Cookbook and Nourishment for the Traditionally Built. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is the overweight American gastronome who lives with his secretary Archie and cook Fritz. Wolfe is a recluse who would prefer to spend his days tending his orchids than plying the craft of private detective. The male household is a cosy world and most of the dishes are rich with meats and sauces and best suited to winter nights.
Mma Ramotswe is Andrew McCall Smith’s “traditionally built” Botswana detective. She subsists on an African diet which uses ingredients neglected in other national cuisines, including mealies, groundnuts and beans. Of the three, A Taste of Venice seems likely to have the heaviest use. I have a dozen more mainstream Italian cookbooks, but even in comparison with those, the range of dishes that Donna Leon and Roberta Pianaro have chosen for the Brunettis has immediate appeal.
The second context concerns the book’s suitability for the needs of the 21st century. Most bookstores carry an extensive range of recipe books, chef biographies and exhortations on cheap and ethical eating. Commercial television has mined the growing enthusiasm for cooking by turning the kitchen into a setting for competition. Leon’s stories demonstrate, however, that preparing and enjoying food must be a co-operative enterprise.
Cooks on commercial television tend to steer the cooking-at-home revolution into industry-friendly directions. They counter the push towards using basic, non-manufactured products by using prepared sauces and soup mixes as prime ingredients. Food programs on the ABC and SBS might have less razzamatazz and more serious attention to detail, but some celebrity chefs ignore the environmental implications of their kitchen behaviour. Often, they place too much emphasis on meat dishes, on endangered seafood species, and on ingredients which are not handy to most Australian families. While there is no doubt that a dish’s appearance is important to its reception by diners, sometimes garnishes can be expensive and wasteful.
There is a growing awareness that it is better to eat what is local and to minimise the environmental costs of heavy transport. Australia is lucky to have a genuinely multicultural society and so we embrace Italian food legitimately, just as we do Greek, Vietnamese, Chinese, Turkish and many other national cuisines. This is especially true where we acknowledge the centrality of the home kitchen. It is good to eat mostly at home. It is always better to eat fresh rather than frozen. We do not need to import ingredients from Italy because they are grown here. It would not be in the spirit of Italian home cuisine to transport food for hundreds of kilometres. By following these principles, we might help to reduce the volume of heavy traffic on the roads, increase safety, prevent pollution and guard against obesity. A Taste of Venice is one of those rare cookbooks which offers inspiration and promises exciting meals while encouraging responsible consumption.