The flat, agricultural plains to the south of Verona are rarely explored by visitors but with their folk traditions and fine cuisine they are the envy of the rest of the region.
If you decide to explore the plains, you will encounter many large old houses and luxurious villas. These hidden gems conceal centuries of history and tradition within their walls.
There they stand, in the middle of nowhere, far from towns and villages. For the most part, they are old houses with courtyards, a complex of buildings and land which, back then, would have been virtually self-sufficient, almost like little isolated villages. Some of them still have the distinctive dovecotes, the walls which offered protection and the barchessa, a farm building, usually with arches along one side, where people would live and work. For others, only the villa remains, the former residence of a noble family, surrounded by beautiful parkland.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the wealthy landowners converted many of the courtyard houses into luxurious summer residences. They would change the style to suit the current fashions, making the courtyard into an Italianate garden and then an English style one and renovating and redecorating the barchessa.
Many of these are now used as luxurious B&Bs whilst others are the perfect venues for weddings and important business meetings. Who would have thought that humble farm buildings would one day be so highly prized?
Vialone Nano rice
Do you know what is the main crop farmed in this region? You won’t have to travel far across these plains to find out! Field after field flooded with water, used to grow Vialone rice. Rice has always been the star in this region! An ever-present on every table, even for farmers. Served with vegetables or mixed with other cereals, as well as meat and fish for the more well-off, dry or with broth.
rice, celery and tomatoes make a risotto fit for a king.
Rice is also the symbol of the great celebrations of the end of the harvest, when landowners, farmers and rice weeders would get together in the courtyards to eat lunch. No prizes for guessing what was on the menu!
The Fiera del Riso e Festa del Risotto Italiano
Taking its inspiration from these traditions of our ancestors, a new event was launched in 1967 at Isola della Scala: the Fiera del Riso. A contest for restaurateurs and ordinary people to win the prize for best risotto. Rice is everywhere, even in the desserts. Obviously, the king of the risotto is Vialone Nano rice, a typical variety for the south of Veneto, perfect for creamy risottos, absorbing all of the flavour of the sauce. It is so perfect it has received IGP (Indication of Geographic Protection) status. I don’t know how many kilos of steaming-hot risotto are served up from the Isola della Scala kitchens during the festival.
Do you think you could try them all? Ones with vegetables, or herbs, or some of the local cheeses, or Amarone red wine, or meat and fish. There is something for everyone. Which is my favourite? Risotto al Tastasal, made with a soft and flavoursome sausage. There is also the farmer’s alternative, which is very common on the plains: risotto with fish. After all, this is a very wet land, so there is no lack of two things: rice and fresh water fish. Whilst the farmers drained the paddy fields to harvest the rice, they could also catch fish. There were so many they could catch them by hand.
Traditional Dishes in South Veneto
Tuck in! Let’s have a look at some of the traditional local dishes. I don't have time to list them all but here is a taster. Let’s start with the basics: polenta. Warm and creamy or hard and grilled. In this area it was unavoidable, like bread. The idea is the same: to fill you up without costing too much. Combined with cured meat, fresh mushrooms or salted and dried fish, such as sardines, herring or salted cod. Next up, home-made potato gnocchi, coated with a generous serving of melted butter, meat sauce, tomato sauce or the local speciality of butter, sugar and cinnamon.
Sounds a bit crazy? Try it! Still hungry? It’s time for some meat: tripe, boiled meat or chicken liver dumplings in broth. Delicious!
Herb-based dishes you have to try
Herbs are the perfect dish for anyone who, like me, loves fine food but wants to watch their weight. In this part of Veneto, you can find them everywhere, come down to the banks of the Adige to see for yourself. Some people pick them for therapeutic purposes, others to eat them. They are so tasty with a drizzle of oil and maybe a bit of pancetta if you want to treat yourself. And the cooking water is great for cleansing the body. The most commonly used herb is probably the dandelion.
Have you ever come across it? They are many other less well known herbs that are used in Veronese risottos, such as nettles, the tips of wild asparagus and campion leaves, a plant with light grey flowers that young children like to pop with their fingers. If they are fresh and well prepared, these herbs are so tasty!