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Traditional Italian Carnivals: history, curiosities, and gastronomy

Let’s discover together the stories and dishes that mark some of the most famous carnivals in Italy

There is no celebration in Italy without food: Carnival is no different, and it takes on a different shape, colour and flavour in every corner of the peninsula, immersing its hands in history and tradition and renewing itself every year with each new generation. 

Origins

The origin of the celebration is already closely linked to food, since it stems from the Latin ‘carnem levare’, meaning ‘to remove the meat’, in reference to the Christian precept of not eating meat in the period between Lent and Easter. In the period immediately leading up to what we still call ‘Shrove Tuesday’, opulent banquets and feasts were held to get ready for the following fast.

However, the festive tradition did not originate with Christianity, but was already very much alive and well in ancient Rome, when many festivities were celebrated, including the Saturnalia, pagan ceremonies in honour of the God Saturn, who supposedly had the task of propitiating the harvest.

The most curious side of these celebrations was the ‘social levelling’: thanks to the use of masks (used to ‘scare away’ evil spirits), everyone, commoners, and nobles, used to celebrate together. A tradition that has persisted over time and is still at the root of the timeless charm of this celebration today.

The carnivals of Italy

But which are the carnivals in Italy that provide us with interesting recipes as well as undeniable fun?

The Ivrea Carnival, famous for the traditional battle of the oranges, carries on a symbolism and tradition that has been going on since the Middle Ages. On Shrove Thursday, which marks the beginning of Carnival, those wearing the classic Frigio cap (a red hat shaped like a sock) split into teams and fight against the aranceri, protected by leather masks. This battle, a symbol of the Ivrea Carnival, keeps alive the memory of the people’s struggles against the abuses of tyrants.

And after the fatigue, they recover their strength by eating together Faseuj grass (fat beans), a dish made with borlotti beans and salamella. Even today, around the Canavese area, there are still those who make faseuj grass in the characteristic  tofeje, round terracotta pots with four handles.  The slow cooking (from evening to morning) takes place in a wood-fired oven, and then the contents are distributed to all the people.

Interestingly, similar dishes can be found in the traditions of different regions. In fact, the dish most associated with the Viareggio Carnival is fagioli all’uccelletto with sausage, in this case accompanied by focaccia servazzina (flatbread).

Tordelli, a kind of meat-filled ravioli served with meat sauce, are also easy to find on tables, generally eaten to celebrate Shrove Tuesday.

In Tuscany, the celebrations take place on the table but above all in the streets where the city’s wealthiest could show off in flower-covered carriages along the Via Regia at the end of the 19th century.  Those were the forerunners of the papier-mâché floats that today majestically parade making the Viareggio Carnival one of the most famous in Europe.

Moving to the Veneto region of Venice, during the festivities for one of the most famous carnivals in the world, an intense scent of sweet frittelle, galani (also called crostoli or chiacchiere in other regions) and castagnole, possibly filled with cream, floats in the air. The Venetian cocktail par excellence, the Select Spritz is an absolute must. 

The typical dishes are still the same because the Venetians are much more committed to breaking the rules and following the wildest celebrations.

And it is indeed in Venice that the tradition of this festivity has very ancient origins.

As early as 1094, there are written records of these celebrations, to the point of having extraordinary city security measures, even if it was not until 1296 that Shrove Tuesday became a public holiday in all respects.

Why was this holiday so popular? Because during those days, when the people were covered in masks, it was allowed to mock institutions and patricians, in a city where there was great vigilance over public order. That is why there were so many laws to remove the masks and contain the celebrations… But they were not!

Moving to southern Italy, it is very interesting to discover the tradition of Putignano Carnival, the oldest in Europe (the 629th edition will be celebrated in 2023), but also the longest: it starts on 26 December with the Propaggini and ends with Shrove Tuesday and the classic float parades.

But what is a Propaggini? A pleasant rhyming challenge in which amateur poets, dressed in peasant clothes and carrying work utensils, review the past year by performing the famous cippon, purifying satirical verses against politicians and townspeople. Is this done out of malice? Absolutely not! Rather, it is considered a purifying rite, because by joking about city evils, they propitiate a better year.

What is eaten at that specific time of year? The main mask of Putignano Carnival, the Farinella, takes its name from the typical Putignano dish. A very fine flour made from toasted chickpeas and barley once used to season wild chicory, is substitutes bread for the ‘scarpetta’ (a piece of bread used to clean the plate), mixed with sauces and oil. More than a dish, a flavour that accompanies every dish.

Farinella is to Putignano cuisine just as food is to celebrations in Italy: not necessary, but it really does add flavour and character to everything.

To make some Carnival-inspired dishes at home, we have collected some ideas to eat and toast together. Simple but surely impressive, these bring the colours and joy of this special time of year to the table.

Baked rigatoni with seasonal vegetables
Select Spritz
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