Saturday Market

There are days when I feel like pinching myself - I'm so lucky to live in a place like this. I went to the market on Saturday with my camera and was thrilled to see so many people there. It was Wine Festival day and many people had arrived at the venue early to do some shopping before the serious drinking began.

The balance between produce,

prepared food,

and crafts, was just about perfect. One of the more famous markets in the Gulf Islands has recently become craft-heavy and somewhat precious. The last time I was there it was difficult to find food amongst all the chachkas, and the little produce that was available was expensive. Locals were a bit thin on the ground, too. Our market has become a real magnet for islanders and it's a good place to catch up on gossip and have a cup of coffee with friends. Tourists are always made to feel welcome, too. It's really come a long way in the last five years.

Another Island

I don't know whether or not it is a universal experience for all island dwellers but when I travel I find myself inexplicably drawn to other islands. For a number of years I had my eye on a vacation rental on one of the outer islands in the Venetian lagoon, called Mazzorbo (or more properly Mazzorbetto, as the island in question was accessible only by small boat from Mazzorbo). In October of 2005 the planets were aligned and we were finally able to make the trip. The house was far from the Venetian crowds but close enough to make it an easy day trip. To get there we took the vaporetto from Venice to Mazzorbo (about 20 minutes), walked across the island, and jumped into our boat (included with the rental) for the 3-minute crossing to Mazzorbetto. The wooden boat was charming but barely seaworthy - one morning we had to paddle across the canal when the engine stubbornly refused to start.

The house had been a monastery at one time and the supporting walls were over 1000 years old. They were literally crumbling before our eyes - every morning we swept up little piles of dust that had accumulated on the floor and furniture.

One of our neighbours, the farmer who cultivated the fields behind the house, showed us a 400 year-old map that clearly depicted a thriving community of homes and churches, but when we were there only a handful of buildings remained, some of them abandoned. The desk drawer in the hallway held a treasure trove of ancient majolica shards that the owner had excavated in the back yard.

We did our shopping on the neighbouring island of Burano which was accessible by a pedestrian bridge from Mazzorbo.

There was a small supermarket for basics, a wonderful fish market (where the fishmonger let us sample some raw razor clams), and a few vegetable stalls. We generally went out for lunch in Venice or one of the other islands and came back to the villa to cook dinner.

Our not-so-trusty boat took us to Torcello, Venice's first settlement, and San Francesco del Deserto, an island monastery visited by Saint Francis in 1220, where an impossibly handsome and stylish monk took us on a tour. But we didn't dare take it into Venice with all the gondolas, water taxis, vaporetti and private boat traffic there.

I have long been an advocate of choosing vacation apartments or house rentals over hotels. There is no better way to get a true feeling of the culture and daily rhythm of life of any place you choose to visit. And there are extraordinary things that can happen when you're living in a typical neighbourhood that would be impossible if you were staying in a hotel. On Mazzorbetto my husband befriended our neighbour Bruno, one of the last people still fishing in the Venetian lagoon. Bruno invited him to go out fishing with him one morning. The trip was a resounding success, particularly from Bruno's perspective - he caught a large (and increasingly rare) fish that he was able to sell at a premium. In a strange twist that can only occur in a place where people truly appreciate and eat local food we were served Bruno's prize fish in the restaurant where we had dinner that night, Al Gatto Nero on Burano.

There was only one slight down side to this trip - the mosquitos! The house came with an arsenal of mosquito-killing products and although normally I try to avoid chemical insect repellents I was happy to use them all. I guess it's no surprise that the word "malaria" comes from the Italian (meaning "bad air").

After we left Mazzorbetto I dreamed about it for months: dreams about boats and water and canals. We had planned to go back but sadly, when I emailed the owner, he told me that the house had been sold and was not longer available for rent. You can still stay on Mazzorbo though, a new hotel called Venissa has just been opened by the prosecco maker Bisol.

In case I've enticed you into renting a house in Italy, I just happened to have written a book on the subject. You can read about it here and buy it here.

Soba Sushi

When I lived in Japan there were many traditional summer foods that I craved when the temperature started to rise: dishes like hiyayakko, cold soft tofu with ginger, green onions and soy, or somen, thin wheat noodles served on ice with a dipping sauce flavored with shiso and green onion. But my favourite was zaru soba, a tangle of cold buckwheat noodles scattered with strips of nori and served on a bamboo tray called a zaru. I ate them almost every day, gently dipping the noodles into the wasabi-spiked sauce and slurping them enthusiastically in true Japanese fashion. In the Tokyo heat (and without any air conditioning in my apartment) it was often the only thing I had any appetite for.

Yesterday, my friend (and fellow food blogger) Dan invited us to a party on his gorgeous sea-view deck and asked us to bring an appetizer. Zaru soba was the first thing that came to mind, but I thought that serving a dish that needed plates, bowls, and chopsticks would be unwieldy for a cocktail-style party. That's when Elizabeth Andoh came to the rescue. In her brilliant book, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Kitchen, I found a recipe for "soba sushi", an inspiring alternative. The soba noodles were spread out on nori sheets along with cucumber strips, radish sprouts, and sesame seeds and rolled up and sliced just like sushi, making perfectly manageable two-bite morsels - genius!

One of the most difficult tasks for a food writer is to describe a complicated technique to the reader and make it understandable without resorting to a series of drawings or photos. Mrs. Andoh took what could have been a very complex and frustrating procedure and made it simple. I've made plenty of rolled sushi (when I worked at a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver) but I think even a beginner could tackle this.

The key to success with these rolls is to tie the noodles together into bundles to keep them straight and untangled. I boiled the bundles in a shallow wide pot and used a chopstick to separate the noodles. They were rinsed in cold water, blotted on a kitchen towel and laid out on plastic wrap to wait for the assembly process.

The noodles were laid out on top of the nori, the first bunch placed so that the tied end was hanging over the right side and the second bunch with the tied end on the left. I scattered the cucumber, radish sprouts and sesame seeds over the top and then clipped off the tied ends and strings.

Rolling was a snap. The finished rolls were wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in the fridge until just before we left for the party.

Each roll was sliced into six pieces and arranged on a plate. They were served with a simple dipping sauce made from dashi (japanese broth), soy sauce, mirin, a bit of sugar, and wasabi paste. Although the day wasn't quite as warm as we had hoped the "soba sushi" was a big hit and I wouldn't hesitate to make it again. It was a wonderful party. The food that everyone brought was delicious and it was great to reconnect with friends that I hadn't seen in almost a year.