Venice, 15th June 2021 – The road leading to the Paese del Sol Levante smells like eggs, milk, flour, and butter. From Venice to Japan passing through centuries of traditions. Venice is beloved all over the world, as a matter of fact. The fact that typical sweets are greatly appreciated so that a Venetian bakery has been launched in Otaru seems to be a curious story. Surely not for Franco Colussi, colled “Nono”, that means grandfather in Venetian dialect. He is a 86-year-old man who goes to his artisanal bakery every day in Dorsoduro, near to the Accademia and to the famous Ponte dei Pugni in order to create his home-made typical sweets of the Serenissima. Now as then, in a Venice which is celebrating its 1.600 years.
Franco proudly wears his pastry chef’s hat, showing some Japanese signs on it. He smiles when he remembers this young girl: Ogata Francesca Eri, who opened a bakery specialised in the creation of traditional Venetian sweets, in Otaru.
“So many letters have arrived at the bakery, in Italian, because a professor has helped her. She asked me if she could attend during my work hours, but I’ve never asked her – he tells – suddenly, I was fed up with it and I answered by saying that the workshop was too small, with no room enough. She insisted on that by asking to watch from outside, and I said yes”. Every day, the girl has arrived at 5 a.m., outside the entrance of the workshop, in calle Lunga San Barnaba.
“The first day she remained standing outside, more or less 4 hours. But later, my wife insisted on letting her get inside, so I accepted – he fondly remembers – she has taken notes about everything, even about the movements of my hands. I asked her why she didn’t take photos and she answered because she didn’t know if she could. She took two cameras out and started taking pictures of everything. So she learned to prepare our biscuits and, eventually, opened a Venetian bakery. We’re still in touch. Later I went to Japan, as well. She’s an incredible girl. We know that she also prepares “focacce”, but we didn’t taste them.
The first time that Ogata Francesca Eri entered in Franco Colussi’s bakery was during a journey to Italy. This country started fascinating her when the Perugia team bought the football player Hidetoshi Nakata.
“The bakery was described in an article presented in the tourist guide “Viaggiare in Italia come se ci vivessi”” – she remembers – since I’ve decided that my objective was both to travel and taste traditional sweets. I visited Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, and I tasted all of them. However, once back in Japan, the only sweet I wanted to taste again was the fugassa made by Mr. Franco. With the passing of the days, my desire became even stronger, until I thought to learn to prepare it”. In spite of being prepared for the worse, the young girl decided to write a letter to the Colussi bakery. “They answered me by thanking me but also feeling sorry, because even by personally reaching Venice, they wouldn’t let me get into the kitchen and learn the fugassa recipe – she continues to tell – for Mr. Franco I was a stranger and also a foreigner: it was normal to be refused. However, I couldn’t give up and, for this reason, I wrote another letter in which I informed the bakery that I would have come to Venice. Meanwhile, I was also looking for a way to reach Venice”. With a low budget available and about a three-month-stay, Ogata Francesca Eri proudly started her new adventure. The day after her arrival Venice, she immediately went to Franco’s workshop. Ten years later the young girl opened a pastry bar in Otaru. The town is located in the Hokkaidō isle, in the Northern Japan. Hokkaidō. Beyond being the place where Ogata Francesca Eri was born and grew up, in addition, it favours sweets leavening for its geographical position.
“Besides, the quality of dairy products and of the wheat in Hokkaidō is the most refined all over Japan – she explains – even though Venice and Otaru are not “twin towns”, also here you can find a flourishing glass industry, a narrow canal and, surprisingly, also a Venetian museum. This is the reason why I opened my own bakery here”.
Franco Colussi’s Artisan Bakery
The scent flooding the workshop is comparable to a magic flute for mice: when you start walking through Calle Lunga San Barnaba, it’s impossible to choose the wrong calle, because your senses get activated and your nose follows the trail of the fragrance. Franco is there, with his lively eyes, his kindness, and manners is able to make you feel home. Inside there are three workers belonging to the Colussi’s famility. The three generations are: Franco, who is the bakery’s inventor in 1956, then his daughter Linda, and his granddaughter Marina. Marina – 29 years old, with a classical high school diploma and after ten years working in close contact with her grandfather – she already knows all the Venetian bakery’s secrets.
“I thought she came just provisionally after school – he smiles – actually, I found out that she went home to do her homework. Ten years ago I’ve been teaching bakery at the Bargarigo institute, and it could mean that I gave her two or three heavy injections of love towards this subject matter. I was totally unaware of it. So, one day, for her birthday she didn’t desire any kind of present, but a kneading machine”.
While Franco is talking, he doesn’t stop slicing – by-hand, obviously – a long and tapered loaf of bread from which he obtains the baicoli, maybe the most known and exported biscuits.
“The baicoli are made of sourdough, exactly like how they were originally prepared before the introduction of the brewer’s yeast – he tells – and we still slice them by-hand. The whole process of preparation of the baicoli takes 30 hours, such as the fugassa, the Venetian focaccia bread. Just kneading them and leaving their dough rest is not enough. Instead, you have to control them every three hours, you have to take care of them”. The yeast is very old, but its dating is difficult to establish: it is the same used by Franco when he’s been working in “Bonifacio” bakery in Murano. His old master gave him some of it as aid for the starting of his new activity. Therefore, dating it is so difficult.
The Colussi bakery is specialised in “old stuff”, like Franco said. A few products but only and exclusively belonging to the Venetian tradition. Here you can still find the zaleti, the bussolà forte di Murano, the savoiardi, the buranelli, the amaretti, even the pevarini, beyond the baicoli, the focaccia, and the little spumiglie. Franco explains that all of them are dry sweets and biscuits, because once people were used to immersing them in the Cyprus wine, a fortified wine, or in the cream.
Venetian pastry chefs are internationally renowned. In 1493 they reunited and created an association, the “Scaleteri”, with their Mariegole (a statute). Two reasons are needed to explain the origin of its name: the first one is referred to the typical overlapped puff pastries like small stairs, the second one is attributed to the structure of the baking oven, whereby the oven was located at a different height level in comparison to current ovens. It had a hole and, in order to get out of it, people had to jump out. This is why stairs were integrated later.
The Venetian fugassa, the most appreciated sweet in the world
Talking about sweets, Venice is known worldwide for its focaccia, which is different from the panettone or the pandoro. It is softer and it even make people think not having eaten it, like Franco says. Thanks to its dough, the focaccia can keep intact for many days. “But no, it doesn’t keep untouched, sure – he smiles – when you start eating it, it’s finished right away”.
It is not matter of doses, Franco clarifies. Because the doses are reported in every book of the world, even in the Internet. “The quantity – he says – is comparable to a score: you can have the scores of Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, and you start to play. But the majority of people can’t realise that the space between a note and the next one is music. Such as a poem: if you read it without respecting the punctuation, it doesn’t mean anything. Let’s give an example even more simple: a ball of yarn and two knitting needles, ten right needleworks and ten reversed. The result would never be the same from a person to another. Returning to the topic of music: just having the score and the violin doesn’t make you able to play like Uto Ughi o like Paganini”.
Even in Japan the Venetian fugassa is the more loved sweet. “Everybody really loves it – Ogata Francesca Eri confirms – so as to acquire the skills to realise it, I’ve visited Venice for 10 years. When I prepare it, I show all my enthusiasm and I always keep in my heart Franco’s words: Passion makes every effort lighter”.
The frittelle were the most popular sweet among Venetian people. Currently, people use to eat them only during Carnival celebrations, but once they were used to preparing them in every convivial circumstance. “A wedding, an engagement, just somebody who came and visit you – Franco tells – the frittelle meant something beautiful, they were the synonym of celebration. Besides, the Venetian frittella have a hole in the centre, although people usually think that the frittella shaped like a ball is the original one. Nowadays, the frittelle are not only locally appreciated, but also nationally, whereas abroad the focaccia is the winner.
“The secret of preparing tasty sweets is that they have to like to me, that I’m a pastry chef for 75 years and I still eat them – Franco concludes – If I like them, since I am sickened of everything, it means that the sweets will like to the client too. And to taste good it does not have to be fat, but it has to be light”.