The Foodie Guide to the Carnival Season

Fri, 02/05/2016 - 04:00

It’s not Carnival without fatty, greasy, tasty food...!

Pork-based dishes and fried sweets tend to be typical of this season. After all, Carnival is a celebration of excess, of abundance, of pleasure. The more transgression takes place, the better. This involves all realms, including food. In the past, rich food and recipes were limited to festive days; the daily diet was much more frugal. In addition, Carnival precedes Lent, meaning 40 days without any meat, eggs, milk and derivatives, including butter. People sort of needed to stock up on fat!

Each region of Italy has its own Carnival specialties. Here are some of them, beginning with “primi”, first courses.

In Liguria, and especially in its capital, Genoa, the last day of Carnival is celebrated with a plate of ravioli stuffed with meat and vegetables, served with “tocco”, the local meat sauce, made either entirely of beef or part beef and part pork.

If this sounds rich enough to you, it’s nothing compared to the lasagna prepared in the southern region of Campania: it’s made with pasta, meat sauce, ricotta cheese, boiled eggs, meatballs, sausages, mozzarella, provolone; we bet you’ll be the first to want to start Lent after eating this.

Going back up north, the “fat beans of Ivrea” (the name already prepares you for what to come) are made from beans and pork (the poorest parts of it: skin, trotters, etc.). In the past, it was distributed to the poor during Carnival; today, during the famous Carnival of Ivrea celebrations, large pots of this recipes are still prepared to be served to the public.  

Compared to the dishes above, the “frittata di bucatini”, bucatini omelet, of Irpinia (south of Italy) seems like a poor dish (although, you can always make it richer). It contains no pork, but rather bucatini pasta, eggs, and sheep’s ricotta; if this sounds too light, you can add provola or mozzarella in cubes, or spicy salami. Because the local tradition involves lots of festivities in the streets, with dancing, drinking and eating, frittata emerged as a quick and easy food to prepare and serve on the go.

It is however in the “dessert department” that the Italian culinary tradition of Carnival indulges the most: it's a triumph of fried sweets (often cooked in pork lard - strutto). Each Italian region has produced its own variation of dolci di Carnevale, Carnival sweets. They can be classified into two broad categories, depending if they’re made with rolled out dough or batter. Included in the first category are bugie liguri, tagliatelle fritte emiliane, and crostoli trentini; the second category features graffe campane, purciduzzi pugliesi, fritole venete, frittelle di riso romane, and castagnole.

Let’s look at some of them.

In Venice, the “fritole” are small fried balls with raisins, sometimes filled with crema or zabaglione; they’re crispy and soft at the same time, and deliciously sweet.

On the island of Sardinia, the “zeppole” feature a base of flour, yeast and water, to which are added ingredients such as milk, eggs, potatoes, lemon, saffron, ricotta, orange peel.  

Another specialty comes from Naples and the south of Italy in general: “struffoli”, fried dough balls covered with honey and colored sugar. They look colored and festive, just like Carnival!

The most typical Carnival dessert from Italy, however, is one and can be found pretty much in every Italian region, albeit with different names: galani, frappe, graffe, chiacchiere, crostoli, sfrappole… It's made from a thin sheet of dough, with flour, sugar, butter and eggs, finely stretched and then fried in hot oil, and finally covered with a generous layer of icing sugar. Sounds overly indulgent? It is, and we like it. It’s Carnival season, after all.