Thursday, November 6, 2014

Of Cappelunghe, Salt, MOSE, and the Lowest Forms of Life

 photo credit: AT
The hole of a cappalungha is recognizable by the lower-case "b" that surrounds it
To be honest, I didn't even know what cappalunghe were, much less that they were caught using salt. In English, I've only just learned, they're called razor clams. But when I saw them stacked or bundled together at the Pescheria di Rialto they registered as little more than sticks of the sea, and nothing I ever thought about eating. I also had no idea that they were local; that they could, in fact, be caught a short distance from where we live.

Like so much of the natural life and culture of the lagoon, our introduction to them came through Sandro. He'd spent last Saturday afternoon with our neighbors and he returned home after eating dinner with them bearing two cooked cappalunghe which, to be honest again, didn't look especially appetizing to me at that particular moment.

But he was thrilled with them. He'd caught them himself just a few hours earlier on the strand of Sant' Erasmo and they had eaten all but these two for dinner at our neighbor's apartment and they were, he told us (bouncing on the balls of his feet with barely-containable enthusiasm and pride), absolutely delicious. He actually licked his lips to underscore this last point, just as a particularly ravenous cat might do in the very old Woody Woodpecker cartoons he likes to watch on Youtube.

There was nothing to be done but eat them. Jen took one, I took the other. The taste and texture didn't exactly go well with the apple I'd just finished eating, and it took me a moment to identify them both, but then I exclaimed, "It's a clam!" Which was a discovery only for myself.

"That's what cappa means," Jen said.

"Ah, yes, 'long clam'..." I murmured, a small dim bulb lighting up for me while the rest of my family already stood in knowing sunshine. Then, in response to Sandro's vivid waiting expression: "It's great!"

And so it was--especially in terms of the adventure he'd had in catching them with his friends.

"Their holes are in the shape of the letter 'b'!" Sandro told us. "That's how you find them!" For a first grader excited about learning to write and spell and read this fact seemed to carry a special significance. As if the natural world were validating, as no teacher or parent ever could, that the alphabet really did have some immediate practical--and fun!--application. Boy, I wanted to say, that alphabet is really something!*

But he was already telling us about how you have to put rock salt on the their hole. Carefully, not letting your shadow fall upon their hole, or else they won't come out.

"Really?" I asked.

"Really. It scares them."

"How long won't they come out?"

He shrugged. "For a while. From the shadow they know not to come out. But then they forget..."

When they do start to rise out of their hole you have to grab them quick, before they retreat--with not too tight and not to loose a grip--and then they spit at you!

"They spit at you?" I asked.

"Yes. It's their defense."

"But it didn't work against you?"

He shook his head, fearless.

(The next day I'd learn from the father of Sandro's friend that took him to catch cappalunghe that while the spitting was no deterrent, the surprising fact that much of the first clam Sandro caught stretched pendulously out the back of the shell as he lifted it from its hole almost made him drop it in disgust. But after that first shock he was the picture of courage.)

"And salt is all it takes to get them out of their holes?" I asked Sandro. "But isn't there plenty of salt in the water of the lagoon? Don't they have enough of it already?"

He shrugged. "They like salt," he said.

Alas, it seems that cappalunghe are not the only things in the lagoon with a fatal susceptibility to salt.

To absolutely no one's surprise except, apparently, those conscienceless crooks civic-minded saviors of Venice who do business under the name Consorzio Venezia Nuova, it seems that the salt of the Adriatic is having a shockingly deleterious effect upon the multi-billion-euro water gates (known by the acronym MOSE) that are supposed to protect this city from extreme acqua alta. (As many people have sarcastically exclaimed, "But how could CVN and its various well-paid experts have ever been expected to know that there was salt in the sea!")

As reported three days ago in the local paper La Nuova di Venezia, architect Fernando De Simone (who specializes in underwater and underground projects) has called attention to the disturbing fact that photographs of the water gates raised out of the sea after just one year in place clearly show far more damage to them from the salty marine environment than was ever projected by Consorzio Venezia Nuova ( Which means, he says, that the Consorzio's projected maintenance costs--already, as one might expect, astronomical--will turn out to be only a fraction of what in reality will be needed.

Rather than the projected maintenance cost of between 30 and 40 million euros every five years to deal with damage from salt water forecast by Consorzio Venezia Nuova, De Simone claims that current evidence suggests that between 30 and 40 million euros in maintenance will be required each and every year.

Now, given the fact that the cozy monopoly that is Consorzio Venezia Nuova has exclusive rights to perform maintenance on MOSE unto perpetuity this egregious (but no doubt entirely innocent miscalculation!) is really no problem at all for Consorzio Venezia Nuova. But De Simone, and many others, are encouraging Prime Minster Renzi's new anti-corruption czar--who already has his hands full with the more than 130 people already under investigation or arrest for corruption in connection with the particular "business practices" of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova--might want to take a closer look into this profitable little underestimation.

And so twice in recent days I've been amazed to learn of the kinds of creatures that a little (or a lot) of salt can expose to the light of day: in one instance, a bunch of hapless and innocent bivalves. In the other, an unsavory bunch of much much lower forms of life.

*Note: From Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon: "Printed posters go up in the cities, in Samarkand and Pishpek, Verney and Tashkent. On sidewalks and walls the very first printed slogans start to show up, the first Central Asian f--k you signs, the first kill-the-police-commissioner signs (and somebody does! this alphabet is really something!)..."


  1. Love your boy. Detest the petty officials.

    1. If only petty officials would stick to petty crimes, Andrew! But these officials, petty and otherwise, and their businessmen cronies, are suspected of siphoning 1 billion euros off the money designated for MOSE--which now won't be operational we are told till 2017. (How long till that rolls over into 2018?) Considering that they're profiteering off the demise of a 1,500-yr-old civilization, old-school Venetian Republic punishments seem suitable for these guys, but of course none of them are even likely to see the inside of a prison cell.

  2. 2017- only 5 years overdue! The love of money is the root...etc.

    1. 5 years and counting, Andrew. That "counting" part will surely come into play again.