Pietro Querini was a fifteenth-century Venetian who was born into a rich and powerful family. He served on the Veneto senate, but he must have had a strong business sense as well, since he successfully began exporting Malvasia white wine and frequently sailed ships to the Flanders region for trade.
These days, if you want to go to a far-off country, all you have to do is pack a suitcase, grab your passport, and hop on a plane. But in Querini’s time, you first had to commission a ship, a captain, and a crew. You then had to pack all your food and ready everything else you might need for the (possibly life-threatening) sea voyage. The fact that Querini himself boarded the ship and headed out on the trip makes you wonder what kind of person he was. Perhaps he just loved the adventure? Or maybe he was a suspicious person who didn’t trust anyone else? It’s hard to know.
One summer, he packed up huge quantities of Veneto’s signature products—things like white wine, spices, and cotton—and headed out on his usual ocean crossing to sell them in Flanders. Unfortunately, he and his crew were repeatedly struck by terrible storms and eventually shipwrecked. Most of his 68 men lost their lives, but the lifeboat that Querini escaped on somehow made it through the rough weather. Tossed about by wind and waves, it ended up landing in a snowy country to the far north—Norway, in fact. Thinking they would freeze to death, they drank melted snow and pried shellfish off the rocks in order to ward off starvation. One day they were discovered by the residents of a nearby island, who nursed them back to health. It was a miracle they survived.
The food that the Norwegians gave them was salted cod, and Querini was so impressed with how delicious it was that he spent the four months of his recovery learning how to make it and writing down the steps so he could bring it back to his native Veneto and teach the people there to prepare it. Ever since then, the people of Veneto have loved salted cod, which they call Baccalà. It eventually became one of their traditional dishes. Interestingly, the notes that Querini took while he was in Norway on how to make Baccalà are still preserved in the Vatican Library to this day.
As in the dish’s native Norway, no part of the cod is wasted in preparing Baccalà. Everything down to the liver is packed in salt, dried, and eaten. Apparently they even eat the tongue. Another traditional dish that uses every part of the animal is a Milanese pork dish called cassoeula. It’s made by stewing pork with beans and vegetables, and has become a classic symbol of the coming of foggy winter days in the city. The word cassoeula itself has such a unique intonation that after trying to say it fifty times, the native Milanese have only given me the green light on my pronunciation once or twice. Now we’re in that time of year where it’s time to start practicing again!