Lio Piccolo is a village in the municipality of Cavallino-Treporti, a peninsula in the Venice lagoon composed of strips of land formed amid brackish water.
There we visited Mauro di Lazzarini at Le Saline. He is proud to call himself an agri-chef but regards himself as rather more farmer than chef.
Only one road leads to Mauro’s farm and restaurant, a strip of asphalt just wide enough for a car, with the occasional passing place in case of oncoming traffic. It takes you across a nature reserve and a breeding site for birds including hundreds of flamingos. It’s a paradise of peace and quiet less than twenty kilometres from touristy Jesolo with its swimming pools, inflatable flamingos and gleaming hotels.
"The farm dates back to my ancestors, who were already living here in 1750. We were sharecroppers under the Mechitarist Armenian fathers."
Le Saline is a company that goes back a long way, having been set up in 1860 by Armenian Mechitarist monks, who still live on the island of San Lazzaro. In 1988 the Armenian community sold the land to the current farmers, who work the strips with passion, retaining the original features of the area. The climate and the brackish soil are favourable for growing exquisite old seasonal first fruits, like the valuable purple artichoke of the Sant’Erasmo Slow Food Presidium, a consortium of which the farm is part.
"We grow vegetables that are particularly savoury because they're from a salty area. They get their unique taste from the salt in the water and from the brackish environment."
"We offer special dishes such as artichokes fried in the pot or in batter, or raw. We also make asparagus sauces, and asparagus with eggs, a typical Venetian dish."
"Among the many things I do is to make long-lasting products such as sopressa salami, vegetables in oil, and pickles."
"I call myself an agri-chef, but my main job is farming. It's tremendously satisfying to harvest the products, bring them into the kitchen, process them and taste their extraordinary flavours."
Mauro di Lazzarini
Cavollino – Treporti, Italy
Among the crops in season you will find peas, salad vegetables, tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, cabbages and capers. There are fish farms that breed eels, shrimp, sea bass and sea bream. Le Saline also raises steers, pigs and poultry, all fed with wheat and hay that it produces itself. To travel across the lagoon is to take a fascinating journey, with hidden and solitary corners in between sandbanks, fishing valleys and vegetable gardens.
Agri-chefs are cooks who work in a farmhouse kitchen and have both experience and a proven culinary ability. They are committed to transforming products from the farm or close to the farm into quality dishes, while respecting both seasonality and local farming knowledge. They use ingredients linked to the territory and are devoted to the protection of biodiversity.
Mauro, who is proud to call himself an agri-chef, told us his story and served us a Farmer’s Breakfast. It was what his grandpa used to eat before going out to work the land: fried artichoke, asparagus and fried pancetta.
"This area is ideal for fish farming. It has one last moat from the old days, where fish still breed. I breed eels, grey mullet, sea bass and sea bream."
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