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Bridge Bites: Lessons from the Lagoon

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by Mark Frano

Antica Locanda Montin is a tiny, burnished trattoria in a mysterious part of Venice. It is roughly a hundred bridges away from Saint Mark’s Cathedral, down a canal that is too narrow for even the most skilled gondolier to navigate. Tourists like us are not supposed to find places like this. It does not exist in Fodor’s or Frommer’s, but even the blind squirrel stumbles upon a chestnut from time to time. This would be OUR place even if the locals wanted to keep it for themselves. We settled into our table and smiled at each other smugly. “SCORE,” we whispered.

My wife and I were on our first tour of Italy. With Rome and Tuscany in our rear view mirror, Venice was the last stop.

The meal at Locanda Montin was a revelation. Each dish showcased the bounty that the lagoon offers Venetians everyday. Our waiter explained that many of the fishes on the menu swim only in these local waters. We devoured them all voraciously in spite of the fact that the strange sea creatures resembled nothing that we had ever experienced from the waters of New England.

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As the meal came to a close, we found ourselves totally seduced by Venice and were beginning to feel like we understood the place when all of a sudden things unraveled.

Our waiter stood by as we deliberated over his last question to us: “Can I bring you something sweet?” I immediately remembered a libation that we had discovered in Sienna a few days before. “Vin Santo for both of us,” I said. He looked at me in such a way that I knew I had just crossed a line. He was, however, a professional and immediately composed himself enough to explain that Vin Santo was, in fact, a dessert wine that was made and enjoyed in Tuscany, not Venice. “Perhaps I can introduce you to a local dessert wine from the Veneto,” he offered. Sheepishly we agreed, having just been schooled in Italian regionalism and pride of place.

This was our first exposure to the “eat local” movement. Our epiphany occurred years before Alice Waters or Michael Pollan had found their voices. It happened before we ever heard the word “locavore.” It seems the Italians were practicing locavores long before the current American trend toward sourcing foodstuffs close to home. Certainly there was a time before modern transportation and industrial farming when eating local was a necessity not a lifestyle choice. You ate what was within your reach. The Italians and countless other cultures have held on tightly to this ideal to spite changing times.

Fast forward 15 years or so and the locavore movement is part of the fabric of life in Vermont and many other like-minded communities. Our farmers’ markets are flourishing, local farms are finding an audience and menus all over the state are highlighting ingredients sourced from nearby producers. Clearly, this is no trend. It is a fundamental shift in the way we see food and feed our families.

Our “supermarkets” have come under fire for the dubious quality of many of the “foods” they offer. Too often, the products available in these markets are compromised for the sake of profit. I can’t escape the feeling that there are more chemists and marketing executives involved than farmers. Chemically-fertilized, hormone-pumped, hyper-salty and ultra-processed foods are, for many of us, largely unappealing. Often the ingredients are unrecognizable; the sourcing is geographically ridiculous, while authenticity and integrity are sacrificed to meet corporate goals that have nothing to do with nourishment.

I was astounded recently to find that some shrimp I was considering was commercially farmed and shipped to Vermont from Bangladesh. The salmon right next to it was florescent orange! When I inquired about the unnatural color, it was explained to me that the fish was raised in a tank in South America and fed a diet of corn pellets that are dyed orange in order to improve visual appeal. I wonder how the fishmongers in Venice would feel about that.

My biggest concern about the locavore movement is that subscribing to it can be an expensive proposition. Food costs are appreciably higher, sometimes astonishingly higher. Is authentic, organic, healthy food soon to be the privilege of those with the means to afford it? Are costs out of line with family budgets? I am willing to pay the price, having concluded that I can’t afford not to be careful about what I put on my family’s table.

As we stumbled back to our room after dinner at Antica Locanda Montin, a fog descended on the lagoon. The mist swirled about the gaslit footbridges like a scene from Brigadoon. You never know what direction you are heading in as you traverse the narrow walkways of Venice, especially at night after imbibing in the local dessert wine, but one thing was clear: thanks to that sublime, eye-opening wine, we would never look at food in the same way again.

Tom Brown is contributing editor of The Bridge. ..... You can contact him at tom@montpelierbridge.com