A carnival feast was traditionally the last opportunity for peasants and common people to have a nice meal. There was generally a food shortage toward the end of winter as stores would run out of meats, dairy, and fat, or they would begin to spoil. People were then restricted to eat only when necessary until produce was available again in the spring. The timing coincides perfectly with the somber season of Lent. The six weeks before Easter are known as the Lenten period of the liturgical calendar and is historically marked by fasting. During Lent people refrain from parties and celebrations along with consuming richer foods made of meat, dairy, fat and sugars. Even today many families will avoid meat and other treats during the weeks leading up to Easter. All the more reason to indulge in the sweets that are typical for this time of the year are available everywhere. Frittelle di riso – little balls of dough with rice that’s fried and rolled in sugar, Chiacchiere or ‘Cenci’ as they are called in Tuscany – Flat pieces of dough that are fried until crisp and dusted with sugar. [More on these next week when we learn to make them!]
The first Carnival in Venice was recorded in 1268. Masks have always been a central part of the Venetian carnival and were allowed to be worn during this specific time of the year even with Italian laws trying to restrict their use. Some elite parties still take place and adults will don Venetian masks and Renaissance style clothes. These days children will often dress up as a princess or their favorite superhero and attend parties with their friends.
If you are in the Florence area for Carnival you can join the festivities in Viareggio. They celebrate for a whole month and have a parade of large floats that depict popular figures and fairy tales.
Even if you aren’t celebrating with anyone it’s hard not to notice the festive atmosphere! It’s all too easy to smile when you see the confetti left on the streets, by partiers, or perhaps a small child who tossed the colorful bits of paper along the sidewalk on his way home.