From Rags to Riches: Carnivale in Italy (including traditional Italian Carnivale sweet recipe)

The fabulous costumes of Venice's Carnivale (Photo by Roberto Vicario)

Italy’s greatest festival, Carnivale, in 2011 falls on March 8. The date changes annually due to the celebration falling 40 days before Easter. But in true Italian style, there is much fanfare in the leadup. In fact, Carnevale events usually commence some 2 to 3 weeks prior to the actual big day itself.

The biggest Carnevale festivities are held in Venice and Viareggio, where bookings for hotels at this time must be made at least a year in advance!

With La Befana celebrations just behind us, and Christmas not long before that, Italians may well welcome Lent that starts upon Carnivale’s grand finale (which coincides with Shrove Tuesday)!

The first sign that Carnevale is upon us is possibly the appearances of ‘Cenci’ at local bakeries. ‘Cenci’, which translates to ‘rags’ are rough-cut strips of pastry that are deep-fried and coated in icing sugar. Of course, anything fried and sugared is bound is bound to be delicious, so it needless to say that cenci are worth a trip to Italy in themselves! (Or you could just refer to the recipe below and find out for yourselves!)

In Venice, the streets are filled with fantastically-dressed locals and visitors alike in elaborate Carnivale costume and masks. Music fills the air, and street performers, well they perform on streets.

In 2011, on February 19-20th and again from February 26th-March 8th, Venice will be in full Carnivale swing. This years’ theme is the Unification of Italy in the mid-1800s and women, with costumes inspired by the period. The official Carnivale website promises ‘Venice meets again the Venetians in their theatres and museums, dialoguing with them through concerts, theatre pieces, historical re-enactments, grand balls and film shows’, at grand scale and top glamour.

Coupled with the beauty of everyday Venice, it is truly a magical time to be in Italy’s majestic city of Venice.

In Viareggio, Tuscany’s glamorous beach-side village, Carnivale takes places along the art-deco-esque boardwalk. Lined with great shopping, gelaterias with the best gelato around*, and golden-sand beaches alongside, Viareggio is stunning at any time of year. Add to it the decadence of Carnivale and words cannot describe just how fantastic it is.

With masks adorned, people are free to liberate themselves from social norms, do things more outrageous than the clothes they wear. Buoyed on by the lively music, deleriously lost in the crowds, this is Carnevale.

From riches to rags, we return to the Cenci, with a recipe from ‘Twelve: A Tuscan Cook Book’ by Artviva friend Tessa Kiros.

Cenci (or ‘Chiacchere’)
Deep-fried pastry ribbons

Makes about 35 strips

280 g plain (all-purpose flour)

2 tablespoons caster sugar

2 eggs

2 tablespoons butter (melted)

grated zest of ½ a lemon and ½ an orange

1 teaspoon of vanilla essence

2 tablespoons Vin Santo or port

light olive oil or sunflower oil for frying

icing sugar for sprinkling

These ribbons of pastry suddenly appear out of nowhere amongst the costumes and masks of February, and are found unevenly stacked up in every shop and every home.
The pastry strips may also be rolled out in a pasta machine to the final setting, and cut. They can be eaten plain or served with ice-cream or with crème anglaise and fruit.

If you will be serving them with crème anglaise and fruit, prepare those first so the dish can be served as soon as the cenci are ready.’

Sift the flour, a pinch of salt and the caster sugar into a wide bowl or onto your work surface. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Begin mixing with a fork to incorporate the eggs into the flour. Add the butter, the zest, vanilla and Vin Santo. Begin working the dough with your hands, kneading until it is smooth, adding a little more flour if it seems too wet.

It should be a soft, workable dough. Dust your work surface with flour. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts and beginning with one, roll it out with a rolling pin to thickness of about 2 mm. Cover the dough you are not using with a cloth to prevent it drying.

Cut into strips of about 10 x 5 cm. Keep them on a lightly floured tray while you roll out the rest.

Pour enough oil into a saucepan to come about 3 cm up the sides of the pot. Heat the oil on a medium heat and when it is quite hot, fry the cenci on both sides until they are crisp and golden. They should not become too brown, so lower the heat if it seems necessary. With a slotted spoon, transfer them to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil.

Sprinkle with icing sugar and put a few onto a serving plate with a small pile of orange salad to eat with the cenci and a small bowl of crème anglaise to dip the cenci into. Alternatively, serve them plain as they are.

Keen on seeing Venice for yourself? We have a great discounted Venice tour packages available either as private tours in Venice, or small-group prestigious Venice tour discounted package including a guided tour of St Mark’s with expert Venice tour guide, a gondola ride, guided Doge’s palace tour, and a boat ride along the Grand Canal.

You could also opt for a hands-on cooking classes in Italy to learn to make delicious Italian recipes in Florence.

Tessa Kiros is part of the Artviva Festival. Her books are available for sale in the Artviva Walking Tours office in Florence. ?

* a hotly debated topic – and one worth doing your own research on, as the hard-working Artviva staff are continuing to do with great dedication!

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  3. Spot on with this write-up. I’ll be back again to read more, thanks for the information! Venice is solely the most amazing city on this planet! The Venice Carnival is unbelievable! The masks and clothing are lovely plus the surroundings are just enchanting. In Venice, almost always there is something new to find out.