Carnevale, which means “farewell to meat”, lasts for 10 days, beginning this year on January 30th and ending as always the night before Ash Wednesday, which this year is February 10th, and the beginning of Lent.
In Venice, this magical celebration includes street performances, elegant masked balls, extravagant parties, spectacular gondola parades on the canals, along with music and mysterious masked revelers everywhere.
Carnevale reached its peak in the 18th century, when Venice was the renowned pleasure capital of Europe. When Napoleon invaded Venice in 1797, the glory days of Carnevale ended. It was dead for almost 200 years. Then in 1979, in order to boost tourism, the city of Venice brought back to life Carnevale – the world’s most opulent party.
The official opening of Carnevale is in the famous St. Mark’s Square, which is the center for most events. “The Flight of the Angel,” begins at noon and kicks off the festivities. An “angel” (the winner of a beauty contest) flies on a zip line above the costumed crowd while acrobats perform on a stage at ground level. The piazza is packed with disguised dignitaries and masked visitors – a colorful and extravagant display of creativity.
There are plenty of private parties in elegant villas along the canals. One of the most extravagant is the Grand Masquerade Ball, held at the Palazzo Flangini. You can attend if you have the right costume and can pay $750 a ticket. But you will find masks and merriment on every canal and every alley in the city.
Then there is the candlelight water parade on the canal. Rowboats, gondolas and other watercraft, all illuminated by candlelight, provide a romantic spectacle. The grand finale is the Notte della Taranta (Night of the Tarantula) party followed by an over the top fireworks display which concludes the festivities.
But before the party and fireworks end and Lent begins, don’t forget to enjoy the traditional sweets of Carnevale – fried pastries! When Carnevale started hundreds of years ago, most kitchens did not have ovens, so frying was the only way to prepare such sweets. They may go by different names, depending on the region in Italy, but the Venetians call them Castagnole, Frittele and Frappe. In Florence, the traditional sweets for Carnevale are Cenci, Fritelle di Riso and Schiacciata alla Fiorentina.
Cenci have several names. Chiacchiere, bugie, guanti, crostoli, struffoli are only some of the numerous names referring to this type of deep fried, yet light pastries. In spite of the name differences, the ingredients and cooking method are about the same. In Florence, ribbon-like pastries are served with a sprinkling of powdered sugar on top. Other areas drizzle on honey or chocolate. Click here for my recipe for Cenci.
You will find Frittelle di Riso at the bakeries in Tuscany and at the outdoor markets and fairs around carnival time. These fluffy little rice balls covered with sugar are best eaten while still hot and crisp. I rolled mine in cinnamon sugar – just because I love cinnamon sugar. Click here for the recipe.
Another Florentine specialty is La Schiacciata alla Fiorentina. Schiacciata means ‘squashed’ or ‘flattened’ in Italian and usually refers to the savory flatbread found in Tuscany. You know the one – the thin, crispy, salty, olive oil-drenched bread that disappears so quickly at the restaurant table. However, at Carnival time, it means this sweet and strictly seasonal Florentine favorite. Although this treat is not fried, it has long been a tradition of Carnival season in Florence. This recipe was given to me by Marco, our winemaker at Podere Erica. Find his recipe translated here.
I have particularly enjoyed writing about Carnevale and learning more about it myself. I have always been intrigued by the wonderful costumes and masks. If you want to see more gorgeous photos take a look at the Official Carnevale 2015 Video
After watching the video, I was ready to book my ticket and go! Guess I will just settle on munching some Cenci for now. Maybe next year……