Carnevale, Castagnole and Other Pleasures
With January 17th and the Feast of St. Anthony, Carnevale (Mardi Gras) took over here in Italy and will reign until martedì grasso (“fat Tuesday,” the day before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday). Our family knows it’s Carnevale time when Peppa comes visiting with the traditional sweet, castagnole ((recipe below). I remember Mattia’s enthusiasm especially for her castagnole:
Peppa likes to douse hers with alchermes, a sweet red liqueur of rosewater and spices, originating in Persia. Giuseppa drizzles honey on the struffoli (larger castagnole) she makes for her husband, Paolo – before they head out for a Saturday night of ballroom dancing.
Many years ago when we worked the land, I remember our farm neighbors gathering in the largest farmhouse kitchen on week-end nights for Carnevale ballroom dancing, the farm women bringing bowls of just-made castagnole, tied up in a clean dishtowel. An accordian player would be sitting on a chair put on a table – so all could see him – as couples danced around him. All chipped in a few coins to pay him.
And nowadays on Saturday nights during Carnevale, dance halls in the rural areas fill up as couples of all ages swirl around the dance floor in waltz, fox trot, mazurka, tango and polka to live orchestra music, feasting on many courses in the adjacent dining room during the evening. Dessert? Le castagnole and maybe frappe’, a ruffled ribbon of dough, fried and then dipped in sugar or honey or alchermes liqueur.
These traditional sweets are piled on trays now in Umbrian bakeries but our local farmwomen neighbors still make castagnole on their woodstoves.
….after all, Carnevale is equated with pleasures of all types. The name derives from the Latin “carnem levare,” a medieval expression which indicated that period of abstinence (no consumption of meat) prior to Lent (called in Italian “la quaresima”, ie, “the forty days”). Carnevale festivities tie to celebrations of over two thousand years ago, the Roman Saturnali latini, days of transgression of usual rules and regulations – a moment of illicit abandon when citizens could take on completely different social roles and dress (i,e the costumes of later Carnevale celebrations).
During the Christian era, the Roman rituals were transformed but the dressing up in costume – indicating the taking on of a different social role – was picked up again in the sixteenth century. Here in Umbria, on the last two Sundays of Carnevale, town piazzas fill with children in costumes. In Sant’Eraclio (near Foligno), Guardea (near Orvieto), and Montecastrilli (Todi area) fanciful carri allegorici (“floats”) add to the festive spirit. Carnevale celebrations nowadays…
Enjoy the photos of carri allegorici
Our farm neighbor Marino shared with me a memory of a Carnevale dancing evening years ago. He was about eighteen, had put on his best clothes and new shoes and was heading quickly over to a neighboring farm for dancing (in the huge kitchen), eager to waltz with the young Chiarina (who would one day be his wife).
Happy voices and accordian music drifted out of the kitchen window, but Marino stopped at the bottom of the farmhouse steps, hands in his pocket, fingering the coins, not sure he had enough for his contribution to the accordian player. He had about twenty-five cents. He turned around and went home, not wishing to make una brutta figura.
…..and here’s recipe of a Carnevale sweet for you (delicious all year round):
8 T of milk
8 T of extra-virgin olive oil
8T of sugar
16 T of flour
1 glass of mistral (an anise liqueur) or rum
grated peel of one lemon
1 t. baking powder
alchermes (a red liqueur of Persian origin of spices, rosewater, anice) – if you cannot find, try substituting with Marsala)
Mix together all ingredients except honey and alchermes – con energia! – until forming a well-mixed batter. Add flour as needed or additional milk if needed. Let rest an hour. Put enough sunflower seed or other vegetable oil in saucepan for frying. Drop tablespoonfuls of the batter into boiling oil. Remove when each castagnola is golden, placing on paper towel so as to absorb the oil.
When all the castagnole have been fried, drip honey over them or splash with alchermes.
Note: Years ago, pig lard was used for frying, ie, an animal fat, thus making the castagnole not suitable for consumption after the beginning of Lent.
A tip for frying: keep flame low as frying starts, raising the heat gradually and reaching maximum heat just before removing the castagnole from the oil.
Read more on Carnevale sweets
Read about the Feast of St. Anthony when Carnevale starts
Click here to read about – and see! – the joyous celebration of St. Anthony, near Assisi
Read about ballroom dancing good times during Carnevale
Click here to read about another festival sweet Peppa makes
Read more about Marino, Chiarina and our rural friends here
Click here to read more on Umbria’s festivals
Read about “delectable Deruta” and feasting with Giuseppa