Blink your eyes and you’ll miss it. No sooner do Epiphany – Little Christmas – celebrations end than six-weeks of Carnevale festivities begin. Feasts, masquerade receptions and processions abound. It’s the final soiree of the agricultural calendar, a time when carne, meat, is nearly depleted and we wait patiently for spring. The word Carnevale, derived from the Latin carne levamen, means farewell to meat or flesh and like many Roman celebrations includes massive meals meant to bring forward copious harvests.
I’ll be celebrating the end of Carnevale in Naples, where lasagna is the dish to be assembled and devoured on Martedì Grasso (Fat Tuesday) also known as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday. Every family has its own recipe often enriched with meatballs, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and sometimes eggs. The ritual and time consuming preparations are reserved for the annual occasion. Quintessential desserts of Carnevale are ribbon-like-fried pastries which carry different names in each region of Italy – frappe in Rome, chiacchiere (chatter) in Naples and bugie (lies) in Piedmont, just to name a few. Castagnole – named for their chestnut form – are another sweetened and fried dough sprinkled in sugar. They too have diverse names: fritelle, favette, tortilli Milanesi, and flavors include cocoa, limoncello and ricotta.The gluttony of Carnevale comes to a grinding halt on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Historically this was the time of year when food supplies dwindled making Lent a time of fasting brought on by nature and by the Church. Not to worry, there are plenty of goodies to enjoy during the Lenten season. Despite the challenge of spartan supplies, sweets were invented that excluded butter and eggs and more fish dishes appear. If you have a sweet tooth, keep eyes peeled for maritozzi (raisin-filled buns) in Rome and quaresimali (orange and chocolate biscotti) in Tuscany.
Lent ends much like Carnevale begins, with parades and processions leading up to Easter. Although Easter focuses very much on rituals and symbolism, with lamb and eggs served. Both lamb and eggs are symbols of renewal so they often grace nearly every table on this holiday. It also reminds us that spring weather is on its way!