I think it was Woody Allen in his film Midnight in Paris who said that Paris was the only city in the world more beautiful in the rain. Well, unfortunately I wasn’t in Paris last weekend but in Padua and there was a lot of rain. Padua (or Padova as it’s called in Italian) is undoubtedly a beautiful city but when it’s raining you tend to stay under the porticos to keep dry, patiently waiting for the sun to come out so you can see the buildings. I did a lot of patiently waiting over the weekend.
One of the highlights of the weekend was the discovery of an amazing cake, typical to Padua. It’s in the photo above, all beautifully wrapped up in paper from the pasticceria, but in the spirit of the weekend I’m not going to tell you about it until the end of this post, so that you too have to wait patiently.
Padua was a Roman city, known back then as Patavium. It was the home town of the famous Roman historian Titus Livy. After the break up of the Roman Empire it passed through many hands, enjoyed a brief period of independence and then, in 1405 came under the control of nearby Venice. As you can see, the Clock Tower in the Piazza dei Signori was built by the Venetian Doge Andrea Gritti, and resembles the one in the Piazza di San Marco in Venice.
Padua has the second oldest university in Italy, after Bologna, and is still a university town today. It also houses the Scrovegni Chapel which has frescoes by Giotto and is one of the main sights of the city. If you want to see them, you have to be patient as well since they are accessible by timed ticket for which demand is high.
I was staying right next to the cathedral or Duomo which on a rainy Saturday morning was an excellent place to wait out the rain. It was almost empty and has a simple Renaissance beauty having been rebuilt in 1522. The design is sometimes attributed to Michelangelo as opposed to the lesser known Andrea della Valle the real architect, although Michelangelo was involved.
The cathedral houses the body of Saint Gregorio Barbarigo, once the Bishop of Padua who has the dubious distinction of having vetoed the awarding of a degree to Padua’s first female graduate. The amazing Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia was ready to be awarded a doctorate in theology from the university in 1678, but Barbarigo vetoed the plan saying that it would make Padua the laughing stock of the world. Eventually she was allowed a degree in philosophy, becoming the first woman to graduate from any university in Europe. In the 1960s Barbarigo was made a saint.
Just round the corner from the cathedral is the Piazza delle Erbe (the square of the herbs) named because it was, and still is, home to an amazing market.
I am always amazed by the quality of the markets in the Veneto. In Tuscany, there are not so many street markets as there used to be and many of those are mostly clothes. Here there was a beautiful array of fresh fruit and vegetables all ready to be taken home and cooked. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to do any cooking in Padua as I had been invited to dinner but I certainly wanted to. I guess I’ll have to be patient and wait until my next visit.
In the market I found an amazing stall that had all kinds of dried produce: rice, beans, herbs, spices. The stall holder proudly told me that it was one of the oldest stalls in the market having been started by his great-grandfather. Here there were great sacks of Lamon beans, named after the town in the Province of Belluno (northern Veneto) and used to make pasta e fasioi (pasta and beans) one of the most famous dishes of Venetian cuisine. Despite the rain, it was actually quite warm and as pasta e fasioi is a winter warmer dish, you guessed it … more patience required.
The stall also had a wide variety of pre-mixed risotto with dried fruit, herbs, and spices. Some of the flavours—strawberry and ginger, nettle, porcini mushroom and blackcurrant—were intriguing. We bought a few and I will report back when we’ve had time to try them. You’ll have to be patient (OK, I will stop with the patience references for a bit. They will come back later and you’ll see why.)
Cheese is a major product of the Veneto and some of the most important varieties, Asiago and Grana Padano for example can be seen in the picture above. Also present is Carnia, a cheese from the next region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia with its distinctive russet colour. This is seasoned for two years before being sold and has a subtle sweetness behind its mouth-puckering strength. Delicious!
No market in the Veneto would be complete without baccalà. In the Veneto this is used to refer to air dried stockfish rather than salt cod, which is what the word refers to in the rest of Italy. The result is that Venetian baccalà has a gentler flavour as no salt is used in the preservation process. The best baccalà is considered to come from Lofoten in Norway. In 1432 the Venetian merchant adventurer Pietro Querini was shipwrecked in this part of Norway. When he finally got a ship to return to Venice he brought 60 stockfish with him which he then sold to the locals starting a craze which saw the ingredient being firmly assimilated into the local cuisine.
On Friday evening, I had dinner at the Osteria dal Capo, another great find from the Slow Food Osterie d’Italia 2016 guide book. I couldn’t resist the baccalà mantecato, which was really excellent. If you’d like to make it at home, check out my recipe here.
I’ve written about bigoli before but couldn’t resist taking this photo of the biggest mound of them I’ve ever seen.
In Padua, they are often served with a duck sauce (ragù di anatra) like these ones I had at Osteria dal Capo as well.
No discussion of Paduan cuisine would be complete without a mention of horse meat. It’s considered to be a local delicacy and there are many specialist butchers in the city. This extraordinary looking stuff is sfilacci: dried, finely shredded horse meat which is used either as a condiment to bigoli or as a salad topping, or even on pizza.
After the market, the weather finally cleared up and I was able to visit the Prato della Valle a huge ornamental square complete with fountains and canal in the south of the city.
Paduans are very proud of the prato and rightly so as it is one of the finest squares in the Veneto, in my opinion. Also, it’s very big. As every Paduan will tell you without being asked, it’s bigger than Red Square in Moscow.
Near the Prato della Valle is the other sight that Padua is most famous for, the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua. Known locally as just il santo or the saint (for Paduans there can be only one) Anthony was a portuguese priest who became a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi following their meeting in 1221. In art, he is usually depicted as a franciscan friar, holding a book on which is seated the baby Jesus. There is usually a white lily in the picture too (lilies are often called giglio di sant’antonio in Italy).
The basilica which hosts his tomb and relics is a huge centre of pilgrimage for Catholics.
Not far from il santo I discovered this amazing little drugstore, the Drogheria dei Preti which looked like something out of the nineteenth century. I popped in hoping to find some more saba since I was running low and it’s impossible to find in Tuscany. I wasn’t disappointed.
So now the moment you’ve all been patiently waiting for. What was inside the package? Well the answer is a pazientina a traditional cake from Padua the name of which means ‘little patience’. So called because it takes a long time to make, it consists of two layers of sponge with a layer of polentina di citadella in the middle all held together with layers of crema di zabaglione and covered in chocolate.
The pazientina was created in the seventeenth century in one or other of Padua’s monasteries. Nowadays it’s only found in some of the higher end pasticcerie in Padova such as Graziati where I bought mine. It is one of the finest cakes I’ve tasted in Italy and if you want to try it yourself you will have to be patient once again. I will be posting a recipe for it within the next week.