Cisame de pesse: the recipe of the most ancient saor in history from a book of the 1300s 

14 October 2021

Venezia, 11 ottobre 2021 – “Take the fish, fry it, boil some onions, chop and then fry them. Then take some water, vinegar, almonds, raisins and honey, boil all together and then add the fish”. That’s how an unknown cook used to write in the 1300s to explain the recipe of the “Cisame de pesse”, which is basically the predecessor of what we now call saor. Discovered by Ludovico Frati, curator of the manuscripts of the library of the university of Bologna, the book “Anonimo veneziano” was first published in 1899. It includes more than 130 medieval venetian recipes, mainly characterized by the use of spices. 

Anna Santini e Andrea Michelon knows it very well. They are chef teachers at the Istituto Venezia, where they teach Italian through the kitchen. This is a way to convey a traditional cuisine that preserves, in every single ingredient, a piece of everyday history. Indeed, every recipe hides its own historical and artistic heritage, and this attracts students’ attention since they aim at pursuing the essence and original character of Venice, throughout its 1600 years of history. 

And so, from September, students can sit and pretend to be eating with a venetian celebrity: Doge Enrico Dandolo, poetess Veronica Franco, Giacomo Casanova and the adopted venetian Peggy Guggenheim. We talk about Venice; its historical context and we cook and eat dishes that they probably used to eat in the past. 

It is precisely at the time of Dandolo that fits the “Anonimo veneziano”, among fragrant dishes that recalls the East, faraway lands, chickens, broths, herbs, savours, ginger, cinnamon, sour, almond, almond milk, fish, honey and much more. 

Among these, Anna and Andrea often chose the most ancient saor recipe in history: the cisame de pesse and the chicken ambroyno, a dish that no longer exist in the venetian kitchen and in which dates, plums, almonds, a bitter grape juice, lard and some saffron are added. Cooking them again is not easy at all, although the final taste gets very close to what it originally used to be.

“The cisame de pesse is the first proof of what will later be transformed into our saor. Moreover, its ingredients are also very similar, although in the past they used to add peeled almonds instead of pine nuts, honey and strong spices – they explain -. The ambroyno is a recipe that got lost around the 1500s, after the dramatic fall of the venetian spices market. Spices used to be added in every recipe, although in very high quantities, as well as almonds and almond milk. Besides, the original venetian kitchen was a fusion that entailed the use of local products and mixed them following Arabic, Ottoman, Levantine, Jewish, Armenian, Greek influences. Perhaps, today we do not have the same dishes that used to be written in books, although the concept of “fusion” has been maintained and transmitted until today”. 

The thing is that very often, recipes kept in the Anonimo are thought for at least 12 people, since it seems that they are referred to the dishes prepared by Nicola Salimbeni, a cook that used to write the recipes he prepared for 12 gluttons that spent all their money in tasty and expensive banquets. A book written at the end of the 1200s, later lost and that, according to some philologists, was used as inspiration for some recipes of the Anonimo. Among scents, pans, boiling water and frying onions students can fully get in touch with the venetian culture. 

“They come here because they look for authenticity, they don’t want contamination but the real and original recipe – Anna and Andrea conclude – Germans are the ones that more than others love Venice and Italy, its art, culture and kitchen. Swiss, Austrians and Dutch also have a great passion for Venice. Americans love Italy too, although several are the stereotypes that need to be eliminated first, such as the idea that our kitchen is full of garlic or that mushrooms go with the carbonara”.

Favourite dish? Above all, for everybody there is the “king” of the Venetian kitchen: the baccalà mantecato (creamed cod) with polenta, followed by the parmigiana and the beloved tiramisu.