Death and Venice

Penny Averill

We live in secular times, and few of us expect to to born skywards when it ends.  And so, the ceremony of departure has changed.  In the catholic countries of southern Europe funerals used to take place at night, the flickering of the flames of many torches paralleling the uncertainty of life.  The ritual of the service was a comfort to the bereaved.  Now,  more and more, the ceremony after death reflects the character of the missing person, or the family, rather than a formal structure imposed by organised religion.  A celebration of a long life lived well now verges on a right good do (clearly not the case in early or tragic deaths).  Poems,  usually about only being in the next room,  music and an upbeat exit, wicker casket creaking slightly, to something entirely inappropriate by Celine Dion or Ol’ Blue Eyes, followed by everyone having a good weep, then back for lots of alcohol.  

I yearn for formality, black plumed horses, thundering organs, Purcell, rather too much sherry and some finger sandwiches. Where I live, only South London gangsters depart in such style, which is a shame.  You only die once, and, when looking back, it’s important you can distinguish it from Jeremy’s 40th.  So, I do like to wander round cemeteries which remain forever in an epoch when things were done properly.  The great Victorian graveyards of London ( Nunhead is a favourite) provide beautiful quiet places to walk the dog and hear the birds.  Great memorials, the size of small bungalows, loom at you through overgrown shrubbery, and amputee angels, rakishly angled over gnarly roots, bless you still.  All around, human vanity and tragedy (there is one grave, from the 1860s, noting the passing of 7 children, all in infancy, followed by their mother).

The Seudat Havrah is the first meal of Shivah and is very proscribed, a simple meal of lentils or chick peas,  bagels and very hard boiled eggs, the latter have much the same symbolism that they do at Easter for Christians.  I look back at nominally Christian funerals I have attended (happily few, how rarely we die these days) and there seems no common thread to the food, other than great volume, edible and drinkable, the pain of the soul assuaged by the weight of the table.  There is much to be said I think for a set format at times of great emotion, there is comfort in repeated traditions, a sense of belonging and continuation.  It’s a shame that we flounder in a marsh of ill matching dishes bought by well meaning people, adding dyspepsia to an already overloaded soul.  These little biscuits are served at Seudat Havrah, but are a delightful all-purpose nibble:


3 tbsp dried yeast (or 4 packs dry yeast) 3tbsp kosher salt

2.5lb plain white flour 3 tbsp anise seeds

1 tsp mahlab (sour cheery pit) (optional, but ususally found in Middle Eastern groceries)

1 tsp ground cumin 2 tsp nigella seeds

2 tbsp vegetable oil 1 tsp sugar

1 egg 2 tbsp sesame seeds

Sprinkle yeast and salt over 2.5 cups warm water, leave for about 5 minutes until dissolved.  Mix all ingredients except the sesame seeds and egg together, cover bowl and leave for 1.5 hours.  Pre-heat oven to 200o.  Roll dought into a log, cut discs about 1.5cm in width and shape into little circles, crimping the outside with a fork.  Brush with egg beaten with 2 tbsp water.  Dip each ring in sesame seeds and bake for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to 150o for about 20 minutes.

(this is adapted from AROMAS OF ALEPPO, by Poopa Dweck, a wonderful record of the Jews of Syria).

San Michele was created in 1807 when it became insanitary to bury the dead on the main island of Venice.  A quite different schtick to Nunhead (very formal and Italian, clean and curated, still battling against nature).  It provides an interesting record of the city, a number of Grand Tourists expired mid-trip and are interred there, a terrible accident on the Lido in the early 20th century resulted in a cluster of Americans (mainly women) grouped together in the Evangelisti section, sucked to their doom by metres of petticoats and the prized feminine attribute of not being able to swim.  Diaghilev, Stravinksy and Ezra Pound are among the Worthies lying there, but I think it is the ordinary Venetians who are the most poignant.

And of the living city herself, rain cannot wither her.  This time in Canareggio, away from the heaving Gore-tex of San Marco where, in January, it is possible to find a little pocket of Venetian Venice, restaurants with untranslated menus full of regulars who don’t need to have things explained.  And the food, the food.  We return with cases stuffed full of radicchio di Treviso, dried porcini, little Venetian cakes and sausages  from Salumeria Bellenzier, where the family have been making their own since 1949.  This recipe is from the Marche, but I think a little licence is permissible.  It is perfect winter food.

Fettucine col Sugo all’Ascolana


Dried Porcini




Olive Oil




Chopped Parsley




Grated Rind of Lemon


Chopped Mushrooms


Pitted Green Olives


  1. Cover the porcini with boiling water and leave for about an hour. Drain, rinse and chop.
  2. Cut sausage into thin rounds and fry for about 10’ - make sure they don’t go crispy.
  3. Heat butter in a pan large enough to take the pasta, add mushrooms and dried porcini. Saute for about 5’, add parsley, lemon rind and garlic. Cook for 1-2 minutes and then add the sausages. Add olives.
  4. Cook the fettucine in the usual way and toss with the sauce.
Signora Bellenzer and her daughter, running the wonderful family salumeria started by her father (below)

…to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into? I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following. But I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you. What news on the Rialto?

- The Merchant of Venice (Act I, Scene III)


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Penny Averill Photographer