In Renaissance Venice, the period from 26 December until Ash Wednesday was one of chaos. The city was full of parties, festivals, but also of general misrule and often violence—tolerated by the authorities as a way for society to let off steam and a way to ensure good order for the rest of the year. People would wander the streets wearing masks to ensure anonymity as they played tricks on each other, or worse. Immediately after this period was Lent when meat and other so-called luxury food items would be forbidden. In Latin, to take away meat is carnem levare, so this festival became known as carnevale.
From the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 until 1979 the festival was hardly celebrated, but since its revival, it has become one of the most famous events worldwide celebrated by locals and tourists in equal measure. This year, I was lucky enough to be in the city as the carnival started on the 22 January. The shops were full of masks, which had started to make their way onto the streets, and on Sunday morning, thousands lined the Canale di Cannaregio to see a procession of gondolas and other boats, rowed up the canal by people in carnival costume and masks.
The spectators were showered with paper confetti, which littered the streets all over the city as a mark of misrule. The rowers on the canal were a mix of traditional masks and modern references—such as Minions—and were led by a huge rat, presumably representative of a local politician.
You see a lot of special food and cakes in Venice at carnival time, but the most popular and traditional are frittelle, (fritole in Venetian). These are little fritters, rather like doughnuts, filled with sultanas. They are sprinkled with sugar which looks not unlike the confetti sprinkled on the streets of the city. These make a hearty treat as you wander freezing streets of the city looking at the outrageous and inventive masks and costumes worn by the revellers.
Fritelle are actually quite easy to make at home, so for a taste of Venice this carnival season, why not try your own? Buon appetito!
Makes about 20
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Resting time: 2 hours
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Total time: 2 hours 25 minutes
250g (1 2/3 cups) sultanas
4 tablespoons rum
30g (1 ounce) fresh yeast
400g (3 1/3 cups) 00 flour
40g (3 tablespoons) melted unsalted butter
250ml (1 cup) milk
100g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
vegetable oil for frying
granulated sugar for sprinkling
- Soak the sultanas in the rum overnight and then drain.
- Crumble the yeast and then place it with the flour, butter, milk, eggs, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Mix well until combined into a thick batter.
- Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and then put in a warm place for a couple of hours. In this time, the batter will have doubled in size.
- Heat the oil to 170 °C (340 °F), preferably in a deep fat fryer. Using a large tablespoon, scoop some of the batter and drop it into the oil. Do this until there is no more room in your fryer and cook until golden brown on both sides (about 5 minutes).
- Remove the fritole from the oil with a slotted spoon and dry on kitchen paper. Sprinkle with granulated sugar.
- Continue until you have used all the batter.