Thursday, February 16, 2012

A little sacrifice and deep-fried carnival delights

The aroma of deep-fried dough is drifting dangerously through my back door. If there was ever an excuse needed to clear my front path of snow, I needed look no further. It’s one of the highlights of my year. In the run up to Lent a few of my neighbours set up a makeshift stall on the street next to the bar. It’s so close to home I can practically hear the oil crackling! Within five minutes I’m standing holding a crumpled paper bag filled with hot fritelle (mini deep-fried sweetened dough balls) in one hand and a glass of the local white wine in the other. The thought of waiting until I get home – less than two minutes walk – is impossible to even contemplate. I’ve never been able to resist a warm doughnut. By the time I’ve finished the wine the paper bag in my hand is looking sad and empty and I’m feeling decidedly guilty, not to mention gluttonous. But then I remind myself… that’s the whole point.

With Ash Wednesday approaching and the Spartan challenge of Lent threatening on the horizon, the race seems to be on in Italy to make the most of the last few days of the Carnival season. From now until next Tuesday bakeries and cake shops across the country will be frying dough by the wheelbarrow-load. That’s because after next Tuesday – known as Shrove Tuesday or Martedi Grasso – if tradition has its way, there won’t be a fried pastry to be found anywhere in the country. So ‘get them while you can’, appears to be the mantra everyone is living by because next week we fast and sacrifice.

For Catholics, Lent was traditionally a time of stringent fasting--one full meal and two light meals a day coupled with an abstinence from meat and meat products. The word carnival derives from the Latin, carne levamen, or ‘to take away meat’. Although the restrictions have since been relaxed as far as Lent is concerned, Carnival remains another in Italy’s calendar of acceptable periods of excess.

Carnival has very ancient origins. Some say it originated in Roman times when Saturnalia, the Saturn festival, and Lupercalia, the feast of the full moon, were celebrated. Today there are all sorts of carnival party. Venice, of course, is the most famed. It was first recorded in 1268. Every year something in the region of one million visitors from across the globe descend on the city to witness the party. I went myself a couple of years back. It’s a great experience for anyone who hasn’t been but you have to be prepared to brave the crowds. I could almost hear the streets groaning under the weight.

Every town has its own take on the carnival. In Viareggio, spectacular floats parade around the city. In Ivrea in Piedmont the whole town comes out to do battle armed with 60 tons of imported oranges. A few kilometres from home, in the small market town of Fiorenzuola, they do the Zobia. It’s hard to explain to anyone not familiar with the custom. It’s everything Venice is not – except, that is, for the shared appetite for deep-fired pastries.

Here in Castello, however, the closest we get to a celebration is the makeshift stall outside the bar. Not that I’m complaining. There’s no queuing, the company’s good and the fritelle and wine are free. What’s not to like?

Carnival pastries
The typical dolci (sweets) of carnival are fried pastries that change name depending on where in the country you happen to live. They’re known locally and in Milan as chiacchiere, or little gossips. In piedmont they are called bugie (or lies), cenci (rags) in Tuscany, sfrappe in the Marche and crostoli or nastri di suore (nun’s ribbons) in other parts of the country. Despite the diversity of nomenclature, and leaving aside a few minor variations in recipe, they all amount to pretty much the same thing. They are pieces of pastry, cut into various shapes and sizes, deep-fried and dusted in sugar. So you have just six days left to get frying - after that, it’s time for a little sacrifice – at least, that is, until the 19th of March, the feast day of San Giuseppe, patron saint of friers!


500g plain flour
50ml olive oil
25ml white wine
4 free-range eggs, gently beaten
3 tablespoons caster sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
Zest of an unwaxed lemon
Oil for frying
Icing sugar for dusting

Sieve the flour and baking powder onto a large work surface.  Make a well in the centre and add the eggs, oil, lemon zest and wine. (I use the local white wine, a dry Ortrugo, which is slightly fizzy and I find works very well. However, it’s also commonplace to use either Marsala or the liqueur Strega.) Using a fork, begin incorporating a little of the flour into the wet ingredients. Bring everything together to the point where you are able to knead the dough with your hands. Knead for a few minutes until you have a smooth ball of dough.  Break off small tennis ball-size pieces of dough and roll to a thickness of 3mm (you can use a pasta machine for this set to its widest setting).  Cut the dough into rectangles with a fluted pastry wheel and make two incisions in the middle of the rectangle.

Fry the dough in hot oil for a minute on each side.  Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.  When cool dust with icing sugar.


  1. I'm so glad this recipe uses the metric system otherwise I would be really tempted to make it! Wow!

  2. Carnival time Jane... a little over-indulgence is allowed. Next time I'll write the recipe in both!

  3. Yes over indulgence here we come! I love chiacchiere Mario :)