Carnival and the Chiacchiere

Carnival is one of Italy’s most beloved festivals, celebrated up and down the country each February. Its origins go back to the days of Ancient Rome, when this period of the year was given over to the Saturnalia, a bout of winter games in which all citizens, even the poorest and lowliest, could dress up as kings and princes, fill their bellies, gamble extravagantly, and generally let their hair down.

Carnival evolved as an apotropaic rite, something with the power to overturn, however briefly, every social norm and stricture; something that could help people escape from their destined role in classical society. They would don a mask, and that would be their shield against the wrath of the gods, their weapon to shatter the precepts of the ancient world, to exorcize their fears, and above all, to celebrate life without social distinctions. “Semel in anno licet insanire”, went the saying: “once a year, you’re allowed to go crazy”. Pleasures abounded during the Roman proto-carnival, and naturally the tastebuds did not go wanting. One of the festival’s most famous nibbles went by the Latin name of frictilia: strips of sweet dough, fried in animal fat. Like the Carnival itself, frictilia have survived the vicissitudes of time, arriving at the present day virtually unchanged. They have conquered geography too, spreading across Europe and beyond, thanks to the Roman legionaries to took them to every corner of the empire. Mutatis mutandis, as is true for wine and olive oil: victorious legionaries would plant their ill-gotten territory with grapevines and olive trees, which would mix with native cultivars. But this was as much a question of culture and landscape architecture as a question of nourishment.

Today, these deliciously fragrant strips of sweet fried pasta are enjoyed by adults and children alike, the length and breadth of Italy. But as is always true of Italian foods, they go by different names in different regions, and even differ in substance too.
In Tuscany they are known as “cenci”, a word generally used for dishcloths, or well-worn clothes. “Rags”, essentially. Northwestern Italy, specifically Piedmont and Liguria, knows them as “bugie”; but perhaps the most common name for them, one you can hear from north to south, from Lombardy to Sicily, is “chiacchiere”. But in central Italy, meaning Lazio, Marche, Umbria and certain parts of Tuscany outside of the Florence – Siena axis, you’ll more often hear the word “frappe”, while in Bologna they favour “frappole”. Sardinians opt for the effusive “meraviglie”, just to emphasize how marvellous they are. I could go on at length, but that might become boring. Just bear in mind that whole books have been devoted to the cornucopia of names attached to these sweet treats, which pop up in different guises in a number of other countries in Europe.

Why not, you could even give them a go yourself? Apart from the deep-frying, which is always a process that requires attention and a few basic safety precautions, the recipe is really quite simple.
This one comes straight from my grandmother’s old tattered and greasy notebook, which she filled with an elegant but slightly shaky hand. She was from the Casentino in Tuscany, so for her, as for all the family, the name was “cenci”.
To make the dough, beat an egg into some sugar, and then gradually mix in flour and butter – and if you fancy, a bit of sweet wine – until it makes a fairly firm paste. Let the mixture rest, then roll it out over a pastry board and cut it into whatever shapes you prefer. They might be flat, they might be ridged; some prefer them thicker, some thinner. And depending on how long you keep them in the boiling oil, you can make them more or less crunchy, as you prefer.

Yes, that’s one thing that’s changed in two thousand years: we now use vegetable oil in place of animal fat. Some people even bake them in the oven, which is undoubtedly the healthier option, but perhaps takes away ever so slightly from the sheer libidinous pleasure.