My grandmother's garden must be a very special place on earth ... Located in the ancient heart of Venice, in an area so much older than Piazza San Marco.
In fact, it was here that the first monastery in Venice was built, on an island group called Ombriola. There was one main island and eight minor ones. On the main island, a monastery was built in the year 468 by Bishop Magno.
It became the home of the daughters of noble families who had to become nuns because only the eldest son could bear the title of noble family. That's why from the beginning, this monastery had a special status. Led by wise business women, the monastery also received money from the noble families and from the beginning was the richest monastery in the Lagoon. In its library, which is now part of my grandmother's house, we found a number of ancient documents and maps showing the rambling possessions of the monastery in the Lagoon and estuary.
These nuns were so rich they didn't have to work, and could afford the best administrators and gardeners! And right from the beginning, the Ombriola island was surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, herb gardens and orchards.
While the monastery was becoming an economic hub and powerhouse, thea area between it and Piazza San Marco was settled by Levantine merchants, in particular from Greece and Constantinople. Soon, the nuns had a wall built so they could close themselves in during the night. And they had a tiny guesthouse built and a church which was open to the merchants of this thriving business quarter. The church was dedicted to Saint Proculus - soon called San Provolo in Venice.
The monastery was an essential part of life in Venice, and there are many stories connected to it. San Zaccaria in May 1797, when Napoleon's troops occupied Venice bringing the Serenissima Republic to an end, entered the most difficult phase in its existence. The guesthouse was closed by the Napoleonic troups, the church of San Provolo next to it desacrated. Over night, all business activities came to a complete standstill.
During the next few decades, private homes were carved out of the ancient monastery building. Yet, its gardens somehow survived, as some of the nuns had never left the premises and other Venetians were taking care of them, lovingly behind the scenes.
Only seven nuns had remained in the monastery until April 1968. They were looking for a Venetian family to take care of this special Venetian heritage site and approached two families living nearby. One of them was grandmother's Lina family.
This is why in 1968, Lina and her husband, who since 1945 had opened three restaurants in the area, bought the little guesthouse and its hanging gardens.
When Lina set out to work on the garden in late spring 1968, she worked herself through hundreds of pages of ancient books from the monastery's library. She put a particular focus on medical herbs that are so delicious, like edible geranium blossoms, ysop or erba cristallina. And she created a wetland garden where she planted the herbs she had foraging in the northern Lagoon, in the marshlands around Lio Piccolo.
Since 2001, I became part of Lina's project. Not only did she replant the herbs and restore the ancient monastery's walled garden but she also was going through hundreds of recipe books, hunting for historical spice recipes and seasonal delights. This is the food I grew up with, and it's delicious during any season, as you will discover in our e-books and online classes.
Growing up in this special garden and rambling terracescape, ancient orchard consisting of pomegranates, figs, olives, peaches and persimmons, is always at the back of my mind. And it's something Lina has always wanted to share with a larger audience.
In late 2018, we set up this online spice atelier in which we share our garden stories and the historical recipes for food, perfumes, natural remedies and beauty products of Venice for the first time in English.
We called the garden una spezeria, the word for spice atelier in Venet. Such a lush gardenscape, with a large nursery to grow herbs and vegetables, which you will see as doors open: A fragrant oasis of kumquat, oranges, lemons, tangerines, damascene roses, uva fragola grapes, red currants, and so much more.
These are the ingredients Lina uses in her kitchen, for baking cakes and making syrups, mustards and preserves. So wonderful to taste naturally flavored food, forgotten in our times of artificially processed dishes.