One of my sharpest memories of food involves vinegar, fish, and onions. Perhaps its clarity derives from the very nature of these ingredients, which are intrinsically sharp, or maybe it’s the recurrent tradition that makes this memory so lucid. Friday has always been grocery shopping day in my family. My mother would return late from the weekly run to the market, so lunch was always something pre-made that she had picked up from the gastronomia. Nine times out of ten, that something would be a tray of unctuous, whiffy sarde in saor.
Many would classify the Venetian-style fried sardines–marinated in sweet and sour ribbons of slow-braised onions–under the “acquired taste” category, and it’s easy to see why: the fish is strong-tasting, the onions carry a distinctive pungency of their own and the vinegar intensifies the sting. At a younger age–on those Fridays of many decades ago–I can’t say that I ate them entirely whole-heartedly, but they trained me to love and welcome the abundance of sharp-tasting, marinated plates both in Venetian cuisine and in the culinary traditions of many other Italian regions.
Come to think of it, when it comes to culinary cultures and traditions, similarities actually surpass differences. Most of the time, there are no more than seven degrees of separation between dishes hailing from places poles apart, and the reason is that food is a universally understood language, thus it travels well and has the ability to morph and adapt to the place that adopts it. But it’s also a testament to humans’ similarities and collective ingenuity that we’ve often produced similar solutions to similar problems even when thousands of miles apart.
Scapece, carpione, saor.
Names for vinegar-marinated concoctions abound in Italy, all pretty much describing the same thing, and all serving the purpose of prolonging the lifespan of ingredients by drenching them in an acidic agent–vinegar, which, as an added bonus, pushes the flavour palate to new levels of complexity.
At the same time, these preparations illustrate another quintessentially Italian way of approaching food and cooking that’s directly bound to thriftiness and a waste-not-want-not philosophy–a way of thinking through which utility and pleasure, scarcity and creativity, go hand in hand.
Originating from the Spanish word escabeche, in turn from Arabic (iskebech) and Iranian before that, the original word refers to meat marinated with vinegar, raisins and Persian spices. The recipe was then perfected by the Spaniards during the years of the Moors domination, which lasted more than seven centuries and ended in 1492. The Spanish took inspiration from the Arabs and began to use the technique to preserve cooked meat, fish or vegetables in vinegar. Then, during the Spanish domination of southern Italy in the 13th century, this tradition was passed onto Campania, where dishes a/in scapece are still very much part of the regional culinary heritage from fried fish to zucchini or aubergines preserved in vinegar. Zucchine a scapece, in which courgettes are sliced into thin roundels, deep-fried and then soaked in a bath of hot, garlicky vinegar is perhaps the most famous. Served cold, it’s a refreshing, summery dish that works perfectly alongside grilled fish, but is equally perfect as part of an antipasti spread.
There’s also Sardinia, with its local take on scapece featuring marinated offal, and finally Liguria, where a preparation called boghe a scabeccio is very similar to the Venetian fish saor.
Marinating fish in vinegar, onions and other sweet and sour elements is an ancient and popular practice in Venetian cuisine, which holds the name of saor (literally, “flavour”). The origins of saor date back to the 1300s and were born from the necessity of Venetian mariners to make their humble provisions–most often sardines, anchovies or other lesser fish–last longer during expeditions at sea. In times when refrigeration wasn’t an option, vinegar would act as a preservative, while onions would help cover any chance of off-taste.
Sarde in saor remains the most classic and famous of all saor variants and consists of fried sardines topped with fried onions marinated in sweetened vinegar. Sometimes, pine nuts and raisins appear in the mix (depending on whose cooking), while the use of spices–quite frequent in Renaissance versions of this recipe–is now fairly uncommon. Modern-day versions of saor also include prawns and vegetables such as aubergine and pumpkin. Served cold, saor is a quintessential hot weather recipe. Traditionally, the dish is eaten during the big celebrations of the Redentore in mid-July: Venetians bring it aboard their little boats and eat it while waiting for the fireworks to illuminate the Bacino di San Marco, washing the sourness down with prosecco aplenty. Today, sarde (or pumpkin or prawns) in saor can be found in most wine bars and bacari around town, either eased atop a crostino or served in portion sizes alongside other cicchetti.
Carpione is a word and tradition hailing from Piedmont, a landlocked, francophile part of Italy with a food culture that differs greatly from the sea-kissed regions mentioned before. For this reason, carpione usually refers to the time-honoured dish of fried freshwater fish–often trout, tench, shad, eel or any other types of fishes available in the lakes and rivers of the region–or of thin slices of chicken or pork accompanied by vegetables like zucchini and carrots and sometimes hard-boiled eggs. The fish or meat is often lightly breaded, and the vinegar flavour is far sharper than the Venetian saor as it’s not mitigated by the sweetness of the onions. Piemontesi are picky about their carpione as they are about most of their repertoire, which is often strictly seasonal and edited down to a handful of preparations. Osterie and trattorie across the region usually add carpione to their menus starting from May or June and take it off as soon as they sense a chill in the air–a fleeting but exciting time of the year for sour-food lovers in and outside the region.