Entering a pastry shop makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland. There are many who love these places which delight both palate and eyes, and turn you into curious excited children again…! And among the many wonders of Venice there are certainly its pasticcerie – patisseries -, some famous, others more a residents’ secret, but all highly appreciated for their history and above all the quality of their delicacies.
Speaking of Venetian confectionery art means immersing yourself in a range of products, whose names display great imagination already: baicoli, buzzolai, confortini (cakes made with pepper and honey), storti, zaletti, bianchetti (sugared doughnuts), persegade (quince), budini, spongade and… scalette. And it is precisely on the term scaleta and scaleter that I would like to linger on.
Quoting Giuseppe Boerio and his Dictionary of Venetian dialect “it seems that scalete was used in ancient times for all kinds of sweet pastries made by doughnuts or perhaps, more specifically, of that kind of doughnut seasoned with sugar and butter that resembled the unleavened Easter bread of Jewish tradition, in the shape of a ladder (scala in Italian). In his famous work “Venetian Curiosities”, Giuseppe Tassini derives this name from “certain doughnuts, which were used in ancient times at weddings and … which had some marks on them resembling a railing or the steps of a small staircase.” The term scaleter derives from scaleta, which we would now translate as pastry chef, since the scaleteri made and sold all sorts of pastries and sweets.
Venice’s wonderful toponymy reminds us of these ancient denominations, especially in the area of Sant’Agostino, where you can walk through both a calle and a court “del scaleter”.
The school of the scaleteri
The manufacturers and sellers of sweets formed a guild in 1493 and had a school of devotion in the church of San Fantino, under the patronage of the saint. Their guild depended on the Magistrato del Frumento, which was based at the Fontego della Farina at the Rialto. By examining the school’s mariegola, we see that this art was, from the very beginning, extremely attentive to the quality of the products it made and sold. A safeguard against fraud from a 1529 resolution is one example. As Giampiero Rorato tells us in his book “The Origins and History of Venetian Cuisine”, some prohibitions were rather curious and not entirely explainable, among which the modelling of pasta in the shape of a woman, a horse, a bird, a rooster; nor could sweets be sold in churches during the Confirmation ceremony. And street vendors could not go carry more than a box of doughnuts and confortini and neither could they shout in the streets to attract passers-by and invite them to buy. However, this did not apply to the San Marco and Rialto areas, where the seller was allowed to “shout” at will.
Furthermore, as Daniela Milani Vianello explains well, to work as an official scaleter, you had to go through “a long apprenticeship, which culminated in the” test “which could be accessed even if you were a forest – foreigner –, as long as you were twenty or over.” The foreigners were mainly Grisons and therefore of Protestant or Trentino religion, or they came from the extreme regions of the Serenissima’s state, such as the Belluno area. Towards the middle of the 1700s, the foreigners were so numerous that it was impossible to gather in the Church of San Fantin, which is a Catholic church; the meetings were held at the Fontego della Farina magistracy near the Rialto. The Grisons was then denied admission to the art of the scaleteri, because the Venetian Senate was at the time trying to restore the city’s economy. Since the economic conditions of the Serenissima were not ideal, the freedom of work was limited for the scaleteri, this also at the request of the pistori (producers and sellers of bread). The Republic sometimes tried to reduce the production of sweets, believing that consumption was overdone at parties, banquets and ceremonies. In 1743, the doge raised the customs duty on wheat and flour used by the scaleteri. This measure naturally caused a lot of discontent among them, as they felt penalized, especially compared to other food sellers. After many pleas and disputes, the customs duty on flour was eventually equalized. According to Giuseppe Tassini, in 1773 the scaleteri had 59 shops.
Venice and sugar
Until the sixteenth century, in Europe sugar was considered a spice and consequently sold at very high prices in pharmacies and not as a sweetener, because in the past it was either honey or cooked must that was used to sweeten foods. Venice was very familiar with sugar, which it imported, mostly, from Cyprus. It was during the Crusades that the Venetians learned to understand and buy this important product. The first work dedicated to the subject of sugar processing was published in Venice in 1541. Over time, the selling price of sugar dropped, it began to stand out from other spices and was bought not only for the sick, but also to sweeten the many foods that Venice produced in large quantities. Venice became the home of smooth and curly sugared almonds with a heart of cinnamon bits, carnation, pistachio, almonds, pine nuts, coffee, candied citron or orange, aniseed, rosemary leaves, confetti or with a chocolate heart. The scaleteri were not the only ones to devote themselves to the processing of sugar; there were other food arts such as confectioners, refiners, even the pistori and … obviously the so-called fritoleri, that is, those who produced and sold fritole, the Venetian pancakes, a dessert par excellence of the Serenissima Republic and particularly linked to Carnival. The fritoleri founded their own association as early as the 1600s and they deserve a separate chapter to themselves.
Today as in the past, social relations between Venetians are often accompanied by “sweet” gifts, which crown people’s holidays, their special moments or simple moments of everyday life.
Pompeo Molmenti in his “History of Venice in private life” says that a man would give to his beloved a focaccia at Easter, almond and mustard at Christmas and “fave” (tasty sweets the size of a walnut) on the day of the dead.
I’ll be waiting for you here to discover together the “sweetness” of Venice, to introduce you to the delicious variety of our biscuits and sweets, such as the traditional fugassa (focaccia) or the “pinsa venessiana”, whose many ingredients include sultana grapes and dried figs, and which is typical dessert for the Epiphany.
For the precious bibliographic information, a special thanks goes to Paolo Garlato and his daughter Marta, dear friends, passionate Venetian pastry chefs and lovers of traditions!
if interested in a tour with Barbara Tasca, please mail her directly firstname.lastname@example.org