The word osmarin sounds exotic. To me, it sounds Turkish. It speaks of journeys to far off places, replete with the scent of spices and the colours of sumptuous silks. It speaks of strange languages, people robed in fantastic garb and tales which are the stuff of legend.
Unfortunately, the reality is not so exotic but just as fragrant. For osmarin is the Venetian word for the herb rosemary. Native to the mediterranean, this herb has been used in cooking and medicine since Ancient Greek times. Its name derives from the Latin ros marinus, marine dew, probably because it grows well by the sea. This over time became shortened in Venetian to osmarin.
Uses of rosemary
Rosemary was well-known in medieval and renaissance Venice. It would have been grown for medicinal purposes in monastery gardens and for culinary purposes elsewhere, and was commonly used together with sage in a type of bouquet garni. Rosemary appears in many traditional recipes using meat and game, especially those involving rabbit, hare, chicken, and pheasant.
Fondamenta de l’Osmarin
In the sestiere of Castello, there is a quay known as Fondamenta de l’Osmarin, one of my favourite places in Venice. I used to fondly imagine it as the place where rosemary was sold, with boats pulling up the the quayside, filled with aromatic green branches. That was until I did some research and discovered that it is probably named after a family called Osmarin who lived there. There are several records of people with this surname in the Venetian State Archives.
Venice in miniature
Fondamenta de l’Osmarin is like Venice in miniature. It has bridges at either end, is lined with store fronts, gondolas pass down the canal, the rio de San Provolo and it faces a grand palazzo, the Ca’ Priuli, now a hotel. At one end, over the canal, is the church of San Giorgio dei Greci, the Greek Orthodox church of Venice and for centuries the centre of the Greek community.
The other Devil’s Bridge
Palazzo Priuli is reached via the Ponte del Diavolo, the devil’s bridge, not to be confused with the one in Torcello. Legend says that the devil used to linger there in the form of a beautiful woman seducing young men on their way to sign up as novices in the local monastery. Men always find something to blame their weaknesses on.
Eating and shopping
Back on the fondamenta is a good artisanal ice-cream shop, La Mela Verde. A few doors down is Creperia Artigianale Casteo a friendly place where they produce sweet and savoury stuffed crepes, perfect as street food. But my favourite place is Atelier Marega, a family run business which rents highly authentic period costumes for the carnival. It’s always fun looking in the window and imagining yourself dressed like Casanova, or a Doge. Who knows, one day …