Venice Food Tour of Isola Sant'Erasmo - The Garden of the Doge
The ferry boat ride to Sant’Erasmo in the northern lagoon islands near Venice, Italy takes a very relaxing 40 minutes and it felt good to leave the crowds behind. After a fun walking tour of the less-traveled streets of Venice that morning with our local guide Lorenzo, we were spending the rest of the day with him exploring Isola Sant'Erasmo, the vegetable garden of Venice. The island was once the garden of the Doges, the rulers of Venetian life up until 1797, and still produces many foods and wine that Venice calls its own. Today would be a slow travel afternoon with the authentic foods and flavors of Venice.
We got off the ferry at the Capanonne stop on Sant’Erasmo. Directly across the channel from the dock are the barene, or salt marshes, some parts of which are outlined with sand bags to prevent erosion. Honeybees rely on the limonium flowers that grow here to make honey which is an island cottage industry. In the 16th Century the island was mostly covered in vineyards and gardens that supplied vegetables to the city of Venice. Today, the island continues this agricultural tradition and is a great place to explore and spend the day.
As the sound of the ferry’s engine faded we were surrounded by quiet except for birds. There are roughly only 750 inhabitants on the island and our first impression was that it’s rustic here, a farming community with a slow pace. Our first visit was to Orto di Venezia, just a short walk from the ferry stop.
Orto di Venezia Winery
Orto di Venezia is the only winery in the city of Venice and has a beautiful location right on the water. Our host Michel gave us a good overview of their production. Growing malvasia and vermentino, both white grapes, they're able to produce 15-16,000 bottles per year aged in stainless steel. The farm is completely organic using no fertilizers with the only water being moisture from the surrounding sea.
They have a very special method for producing one of their wines. Using typical Venetian boats, they take two boatloads of magnums and sink them at a secret location in the lagoon. They then sit underwater for nine months at a stable temperature before they’re brought back up.
We did a very leisurely tasting under shade trees right next to the beautiful lagoon. Their wines are thirst-quenching with a refreshing mineral note that paired perfectly with the ambience and time of day. It's especially well suited to the foods produced in the Venice lagoon: fish, seafood, artichokes and asparagus.
Another very unusual tasting we had was Cynar. Have you tried this? It’s a bittersweet liqueur made from artichokes and other herbs that’s considered a digestivo. We never would have thought this was a thing, but when in Venice.... It was strong and no doubt an acquired taste!
Bike Tour of Sant'Erasmo
Lorenzo had arranged for a bicycle ride around the island so we headed to Il Lato Azzurro Hotel so we could pick up the bikes and get a feel for life on the island at a leisurely pace. This is absolutely our favorite way to slow travel.
The day was warm and the ride on dirt roads was easy. We passed farm after farm many growing one of the items we were anxious to try, carciofi violetto, the violet artichoke. It was near the end of carciofi stagione, the artichoke season, so many of the artichokes had already been harvested but there were still so many left in fields of purple and green.
Our route was lush with trees, vegetable gardens, fields of flowers and grape vines. Just as beautiful a bucolic landscape as we could have imagined and just a short boat ride from Venice.
The Venetian Dorona Grape
Lorenzo led us down a narrow lane between grape vines to the small farm of Gastone and Dariella Vio. Their bees produce organic honey, and they specialize in growing the Venetian Drona grape -- the “old lagoon grape” -- from which the wine of the Doge (Duke) was once made. Gastone enjoyed telling us that because of the drainage system he had built, his vines survived the flood of 1966. Everything here is done naturally. He plants beans between the vine threads to nourish the soil and roses at the end of the threads to attract parasites away from the vines. All this hard work allows him to brag that at 80-100 years old, he has the oldest vines in Laguna Venezia!
La Vigna del Mare
After riding for a bit we stopped for a break next to a large vineyard where a gentleman was tending the vines. Lorenzo asked if he had time to talk with us, and he not only talked with us but then invited us down the lane to his home to enjoy his latest DOCG prosecco wine. Dario, the owner of La Vigna del Mare, was so gracious and explained how this all started as an experiment. Because his land is on what was once a vegetable garden, the subsoil is very fertile, and the vines had shown unexpected growth in the first five years. The prosecco here was wonderful!
Miele del Doge
Our next stop down the road was to see Mara, the owner of Miele del Doge, a family operated beekeeping company. They tend the bees who make honey from the limonium, the main flower of the barena which blooms through July and August.
Learning about the making of honey in this region struck a chord about just how fragile an environment this is. The preservation of the Venetian lagoon is vital to the environmental health of the barena, needed for the bees to pollinate. In case of very high tide the barena may flood completely for a few hours or longer. Mara uses no pesticides and only herbal and biological methods to keep their honey pure.
We suited-up in beekeeper garb and checked out the bee boxes. It’s a little scary at first with bees buzzing all around, and it's loud! But seeing the honeycombs firsthand was a great educational experience. Afterward we were treated to a tasting of honeys produced by the bees at different times of the year. Like any true farm-to-table experience, you can taste the environmental conditions under which it was made. The miele del Doge is a balsamic sweet honey with a salty after taste. It's very rich in iodine and amazing in combination with any kind of blue cheese - the very reason this Venetian honey is so highly prized by French gourmets!
Traditional Venetian Foods at the Il Lato Azzurro Hotel
We rode back to Hotel Il Lato Azzurro to return our bikes and enjoy a late lunch on the front veranda. The grounds there are beautiful with shade tress and well-groomed foliage and flowers everywhere you look. Our lunch was casual of course - we're in Italy - with the most colorful platters of typical local Venetian foods. We enjoyed Baccalà Mantecato, or creamed patties of codfish, two varieties of Bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and artichoke spread, and the beautiful fried Carciofi Violetto, the violet artichokes we'd seen along the road, thinly sliced and drizzled with olive oil. But surprisingly my favorite was a dish called Sarde in saor, sweet and sour sardines, a traditional dish in Venice made with onions stewed in vinegar mixed with raisins and in some cases pignoli or pine nuts. In my mind, it epitomizes Venice - seafood, preserved with a vinegar base followed by a hint of sweetness, typically served cold or room temperature. It's Venice culture and history in one dish.
This feast of authentic foods was a perfect way to cap off an afternoon immersed in the bucolic island of Sant'Erasmo just a stone's throw from Venice, one of the most visited cities in the world. All this lovliness was served with a chilled Sant'Erasmo prosecco - we couldn't have been happier!
Venetian Lagoon on a Traditional Wooden Boat
We didn’t think the day could get any better but of course we were wrong. Lorenzo had arranged for his friend Marco, a local boat captain, to take us on a Venice lagoon boat tour away from the ferry and water taxi lanes in his vintage wooden sailboat Narciso. It was also equipped with an engine or we could have been sailing for hours (I could think of worse things!).
Lorenzo pointed out areas of interest as we cruised along: the Isola del Lazzaretto Nuovo, the Island of Quarantine where in the 15th century, ships’ crews or passengers suspected of carrying disease were kept for forty days. During Napoleon’s reign it was a fortress and later still it was used as an asylum. We passed Isola delle Vignole, where we could see the skyline of Venice with its domes and towers. This island with its vineyards, farms, and marshland isn’t visited very much but there is a small chapel from the 7th century that remains. We passed gondeliers-in-training as they paddled in tandem in the late afternoon - it was great to see a slice of everyday life in Venice!
Marco turned into a narrow canal in Lido di Venezia, a lovely residential area built on a long sandbar to the east of Venice proper. There were no tourist crowds here and appeared to be mostly residential with shops, apartment and office buildings with pretty window boxes. Marco docked and we got off to stretch our legs and have a snack. It was very charming here, and the next time we’re here we’ll have to spend more time in Lido.
Sunset Over Piazza San Marco
As the sun began to set and the day turned to dusk, the scene that unfolded around us was nothing short of spectacular. Seeing Venice like this was such a treat.
I had to pinch myself that we were even here, in Venice. But it didn't feel like I'd ever imagined. Because I never imagined there was another way to see Venice away from the cruise-ship crowds that flood the Piazza San Marco, St. Mark's Square. The side of Venice tourists rarely get to see -- and yet it's here for everyone to enjoy.
We cruised along the Grand Canal even trying our hand at steering the boat, and turned in toward Dorsoduro on the way to our late night dinner date. We were on our way to the home of professional chef Nino, and his wife Nini, a painter and local Venetian mask artisan, where we'd enjoy a home cooked Venetian dinner. Spending time breaking bread with locals was going to be the perfect way to end this day -- eating more local Venetian foods, at home with Nino and Nini in their lovely home.
The Authentic Venice
What do we mean when we talk about finding the authentic side of a place? Is it just travel snobbery to think we can truly find more genuine travel experiences? After all, St. Mark's Square is authentic - it's been there since 1100! But it's not so much the place itself -- it's the kind of experience you have when you see it, learn it, smell it, feel it.
The day we spent with Lorenzo and Marco allowed us to experience Venice away from the crowds, learn about the history and tradition by tasting it in the honey, artichokes, seafood, and wine. I think this was as good a travel experience as you can get!
If You Go
The Best Time to Go to Venice
Spring and summer is an ideal time to visit Sant'Erasmo when you can enjoy the farms and beautiful views outside.
Explore More of Northeastern Italy
The Tre Venezie region encompasses the Veneto Region, Trentino Alto-Adige, and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions, a region rich with authentic food products and many precious wines like the red Amarone, Valpollicella, Teroldego and Refosco or the white Prosecco, Friulano, Malvasia and Ribolla. This vast territory in northeastern Italy between the Po river and the Alps is a great place to discover Italy's food and culture. Along with famous destinations like Verona and Lake Garda, within a few hours by train or car from Venice it's possible to explore the old Grappa distilleries of Bassano del Grappa, Vicenza with its DOP Asiago cheese and the delicious "soppressa" salame; Padova, the city of the revolution of Galileo Galilei, with one of the most beautiful medieval fresh market squares in Italy; Treviso, Trieste and the list goes on and on.
Italian Days in Venice
We've taken several small group tours in Bologna with Italian Days who specializes in authentic, small group tours of Italy. We had a blast on the Italian Days Food Experience, a Pignoletto wine tour, and a truffle hunting tour - and were happy to find they could also help us see Venice! Lorenzo is their local Manager in Venice who can help you arrange to see the authentic Venice, whether through a guided walking tour of the city or an off-the-beaten-path foodie tour of the lagoon islands.
Portions of this tour were sponsored by Italian Days, however as always, our opinion is ours alone based on first hand experience.