21 Feb 2017

This is how grandparents remember Carnival

The most gaily-coloured, entertaining celebration is here again. It's Carnival, bringing costumes, pranks and lots of delicious treats with it. But have Carnival celebrations always been like that?

The most gaily-coloured, entertaining celebration is here again. It's Carnival, bringing costumes, pranks and lots of delicious treats with it. But have Carnival celebrations always been like that?

The origins of this celebration are in the remote past, rooted in the customs of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The merrymaking associated with Carnival has naturally changed many times since those days.

Without going too far back in time, even today's grandparents can describe almost-forgotten traditions and strange customs. When they were youngsters, people really looked forward to Carnival because it was the only occasion where all of the townsfolk or villagers could get together and celebrate with dancing, singing and homemade food.


How did people dress up in our grandparents' time?


Naturally, back in our grandparents' day, costumes were very different from the ones we see today: you certainly didn't go out and buy an expensive fancy dress costume just to wear for one day! People old and young dressed up in what they had, often using old, worn-out clothes. One of the most popular traditions was cross-dressing: women would don their brothers' and husbands' jackets and trousers, while the men would wrap themselves up in shawls and long skirts. As with all fancy dress befitting this name, make-up was an absolute must. A cork singed on the fire served to draw a beard and moustache on your face, and a piece of charcoal to colour it in good and proper.


Dancing, singing and pranks in the piazza


Most of the Carnival celebrations took place in the piazzas of the little towns and cities: there would be popular songs, little enactments, ditties and dances brought all Italian streets to life on Shrove Tuesday, from morning to night. Many of those were games that adults and children played in the streets, differing from area to area throughout Italy. In Naples, for example, they had the "festa della pentolaccia", which consisted of a young boy whacking a huge saucepan filled with goodies with a stick to topple it, with people thronging to gather up the spoils. In Basilicata people used to dress a barrel up like a scruffy man and then people would fill it with a little wine for everyone to drink together, accompanying it with homemade cakes and pastries, and the jolly music of the "mandacetto" (accordion), while in Sardinia children in fancy dress went from house to house, asking for "zipole", typical Sardinian fritters. In Bagolino, Brescia province, the piazzas would be brought to life by two typical characters, the Balarì and the Màscher: the former were richly decked out in silk and jewels and the latter dressed as country folk. They would put on dances and shows throughout the Carnival period. Carnival floats could already be seen in many cities, naturally much simpler versions of the ones we see nowadays, parading through the streets, carrying men and women in fancy dress who handed out sugary treats of every kind.


Traditional cakes and pastries


The much-loved cakes and pastries that we eat during Carnival today are not a recent discovery. "frittelle" and "chiacchiere" have very ancient origins, and people say that the first ones were already popular in the Ancient Rome era, going by the name of “frictilia”. One thing for sure is that, although nowadays we let ourselves be tempted by the yummy treats on display in every cake shop window, back when our grandparents were children, people used to make things at home.

Known throughout every region in Italy, these delicious, strictly deep-fried treats had different shapes and names depending on where you lived and local custom. Among the most popular and widely-consumed Carnival pastries are what we call "chiacchiere" (chatters). They go by this name in most Italian cities.

Why chiacchiere? Tradition has it that at Carnival time, people could chatter away without holding back and without fear of being told off for doing so.

This pastry treat has assumed various different names across Italy, adapting to local dialects. In Tuscany they are known as "cenci" or "donzelle", while in Emilia Romagna people call them "frappe" or "sfrappole", in Trentino "crostoli" and in the Veneto area "galani".

The same goes for "fritelle" fritters, prepared in a vast range of ways depending on regional traditions. The best-known ones are of course Venetian "fritoe", made with wheat flour, raisins and pine nuts, already a national sugary treat in the time of the Venetian Republic. In Sicily they are still called "sfincitelli" and are made with honey and cinnamon. In Liguria, Carnival is synonymous with chestnut fritters, whereas in Trentino the most traditional ones are apple fritters.

Customs and traditions may well have changed, but Carnival is still a fun time that involves everyone old and young in its fun and games, pranks and yummy treats.




"frittelle" and "chiacchiere"
have very ancient origins