Together with Harry’s Bar, a suite with a view on the Grand Canal in the Gritti Palace, and a dinner in the Ristorarante del Doge in the same hotel, were the Venetian places most beloved to Hemingway. This is where the writer wanted to spend his convalescence after the plane he was on, together with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, crashed while flying over Murchison Falls in Uganda, leaving the couple physically and psychologically traumatized that Hemingway couldn’t make it to Stockholm to pick up his Nobel Prize for literature.
The newspaper Gazzettino Sera from the 24 March, 1954 reported: «Ernest Hemingway announced he will stay in Venice to recover from the injuries incurred in the well-known African accidents, with a powerful cure based on scampi and Valpolicella». For the writer, this “diet” was more effective than any kind of powerful medical therapy. And he followed it rigorously, in loco, for several months.
One hundred and twelve years after his birth (21 July 1899, Oak Park, Illinois) and fifty years after his death (2 July 1961, Ketchoum, Idaho) Venice payed tribute to the writer with the photographic exhibition Il Veneto di Hemingway (Hemingway’s Veneto). The photos are now on show at the Brooklyn College in NY, and in the Fall will be at NY University in Manhattan. Also the Venetian Hotel Gritti honours its legendary guest with a special menu, featuring some of the writer’s favourite dishes.
Hemingway first got familiar with the Veneto region of Italy when, as an eighteen year-old, he was a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Italian front during World War I. He was always the kind of man who liked to live dangerously – hunting and fishing, smoking, travelling, eating and drinking with largesse. He was a correspondent based in Spain during the Civil War and in Europe during the Second World War: he lived D-Day and the liberation of Paris first-hand – and was at the front of the line to “liberate” the bar of the Hotel Ritz in Place Vendome.
On 25 August, 1944, the famous photographer Robert Capa entered Paris along with the first line of allied troops and found Hemingway’s driver, armed, patrolling the entrance to the Ritz and the writer, impassible, seated inside at the bar drinking champagne, celebrating the victory in his own way. As recounted by Capa: «At first I thought he was a general. He had a public relations officer, a lieutenant as an aide, a cook, a driver, a photographer and a special liquor ration.»
In a newly-liberated Paris, it was finally time for Hemingway to enjoy his stays at the Ritz, to eat in the city’s grand restaurants. No more sordid cafés and bars around the Place de la Contrescarpe, where a coffee was supposed to hold you over for an entire afternoon. Now the ex-journalist was a famous writer who could afford any kind of extravagance.
And Hemingway had an appetite for the finer things in life: from cigars made by Don Alejandro Robaina, the same kind smoked by Winston Churchill and by Hemingway’s dear friend, Fidel Castro (who often gifted them to Hemingway), to great binges of the enormous, flat, slighty green-tinted Marennes-Oléron oysters and creamy, pungent Pont-l’Évêque cheese made in Southern Normanday, which he loved washing down with icy coldSancerre.
He paid tribute to the oysters in his book A Moveable Feast, published posthumously in 1964: «As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.»
Despite the variety of the gastronomic delicacies that Paris had to offer, Hemingway remained a lifelong, unapologetic carnivore. As a kid, he began eating the squirrels he’d hunted and the trout he’d fished. Later on in life, as a big game hunter, he’d eat the antelope and other game he’d catch while on African safaris, having his guides cook it for him.
In Pamplona, Spain, on the eve of the Running of the Bulls for the San Firmino celebration, (the same setting that he used in his first book, The Sun Also Rises in 1926, which shot him to fame) – he’d wash down heapings of roasted pork with generous quantities of ruby-coloured Rioja alta wine.
He regularly enjoyed the sophisticated Montgomery Martini cocktail prepared by Giuseppe Cipriani, the owner of Harry’s Bar in Venice, where Hemingway spent a lot of his time in the Winter between 1949 and 1950, writing in a corner table in the Concordia room, and where he wrote parts of the book, Over the River and Into the Trees.
And it was also in Venice where the author enjoyed fish risotto with lobster ragù that the chef of the Gritti Palace Hotel would prepare for him. And, when he could, he’d eat the gigantic Marlins – which he’d fish in the open waters between Key West and Cuba – that he’d cook together with Gregorio Fuentes, the captain of his boat, El Pilar. These of course were the same enormous fish that his character Santiago, from The Old Man and the Sea, sought to capture with patience and tenacity.
In Havana, when the sea was too rough for fishing, Hemingway would feast at the Bodeguita del Medio, sip daiquiris at the Floridita, the bar at the end of the sun-drenched Calle Obispo. He’d drink the famous Cuban rum at his house immersed in the lush green vegetation of Finca Vigia, ten kilometers from the capital, surrounded by thousands of books from his own personal library, his hunting trophies and his vision too-often blurred by alcohol. But even in Cuba, his thoughts would turn to his years spent in Europe: «if you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for all of Paris is a moveable feast.»