Carnival is on. A feast with ancient origins that re-interprets the ancient Roman pagan Saturnalian festival and the Greek Dionysian rites and that in Venice is traditionally linked to the gathering in Piazza San Marco that followed the victory of the Republic against the Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162, becoming official only in 1296, when the Venetian Senate established that the day prior to the Lent was a feast day. At the time the celebrations lasted about 6 weeks and carried a much deeper -not only religious- meaning.
As you may have read, Carnival as we know it today was recovered only in 1979 by decision of our local government. In fact, if I think of my childhood memories, I link this feast to the Harlequin costume I used to wear and to Iaia, one of our neighbours, nicknamed the fritter maker in the condominium where I grew up. Today things are a little different, in the sense that –with a husband working in the event industry- Carnival has taken more the shape of a period of extra work rather than of actual partying, but if there is one thing I will never cease to enjoy it’s the cakes and this year I’ve been extremely lucky because I got to savour them in the finest Café in Venice, the Florian.
It didn’t really happen by chance: I needed the catalogue of Irene’s Andessner exhibition held at the Caffè Florian in 2003, so I wrote to Stefano Stipitivich, artistic director of the Café and father of a friend of mine, to ask him if they had a copy and he invited me for a drink. He couldn’t stay long, but was so kind to give me, in addition to the catalogue, the Caffè Florian Delicacies cookbook and to order the Carnival tray for me to enjoy.
Left on my own in the Hall of Season, I savoured all the pleasure of the moment. The feeling was the one of being in the heart of one of the world’s most spoken events, but in complete relaxation, far from the hustle and well looked after. How perfect. I opened the Caffè Florian Delicacies Cookbook and immediately searched for the frittelle and galani recipes. Both are preceded by a brief introduction, beautifully illustrated with watercolours by Adrian Tuchel.
"It wouldn't be Carnival without fritoe", it says “Tradition -the legend of Marco Polo, no less- has it that the mix and method of frying were imported from China" and that "the recipe dates back to the second half of the 14th century and is the oldest record of Venice’s food and wine heritage (conserved at the Biblioteca Nazionale Casanatese library in Rome). Frittelle were made and sold in boxy wooden huts and served on brass or pewter dishes with the symbol of the lion of St.Mark or the Virgin Mary; the fritter sellers formed a corporation back in the 17th century (the “Arte dei fritoeri”). In the 18th century Carlo Goldoni gave Orsola, the fritola lady, a speaking part in his comedy “Il Campiello” and Pietro Longhi painted a picture entitled “The fritoa seller”. The custom is alive today among the confectionery stalls at the Madonna della Salute festival, a cherished event for Venetians celebrated on the 21st of November to commemorate one of the most outbreaks the of the plague that struck the city in 1630. In the old recipe, the fritters were prepared by mixing the flour with pig fat (not oil) then goat’s milk, a drop of “rosewater”, raisins and a pinch of saffron and then frying in lard.
It then continues reminding us that “The festivities are documented as far back as the 11th century. Carnival reached its zenith in the 1700s, almost disappeared under Austrian rule and the re-emerged in all its glory in the late 20th century. The carnival’s staple sweetmeats are galani, a delight for the taste we owe to ancient Romans, who prepared very similar dishes fried in pig fat and sweetened with honey or molasses. Every Italian region has its own recipe and name [...]. Galani are a Venetian tradition their ribbon-like forms are slender and crumbly, unlike the crostoli made in the Veneto hinterland, which are thicker and rectangular.”
Then the waiter in livery arrived, serving my treat on the usual -and extremely heavy- silver tray. I will immediately confess that I didn’t eat everything, being quite a petite woman I prioritized my favourites: galani, crispy, dry and only apparently light, and the extra addition to my snack: the cup of hot eggnog with the cookies. I also had a bite of the traditional Veneziana, thus the fritter made only with the dough, but then I wrapped the rest and brought it home for Vito (the real frittelle lover in the family). I made my drink last long enough to breathe in the tranquillity of the environment before returning in the midst of the frenzy.
I took the time to quickly leaf through the catalogue of the above mentioned exhibition. Every two years –in concomitance with the Biennale d’Arte- the Café organises an exhibition of contemporary art called Temporanea, for which an international artist is asked to interpret the possible realities of the Caffé Florian. I had asked for that specific catalogue because I believe that with her clever operation, Irene Andessner (who had been Emilio Vedova's student) gave us a precious interpretation of our times of change and of the importance of the role of women. With the aid of a cinematographic studio team, she was literally transformed into the famous Venetian women who had inspired her. She used her body as a means to render both present and past realities, being at the same time the person she was representing but never ceasing to be herself, transforming the Hall of Illustrious Men into the Hall of Illustrious Women. Definitely inspiring and perfectly "fitted" to this period of masking!
At that point I was feeling more than cherished and satisfied, so I closed my books, took my bag and went home with the pleasant feeling of having re-discovered the small pleasures of Carnival. All thanks to a cosy moment at the Florian, the Venetian cafe par excellence.
So, to conclude, the only thing I can say is that if you find yourself in Saint Mark's square in this frenetic Carnival period and need a moment of peace, consider treating yourself to a coffee or a donut in this magical place, where you seem to become who you want to be in this realm of mystery, so rich in suggestiveness!
Address: Piazza San Marco, 57, 30124 Venezia VE
Phone: +39 041 520 5641
Check prices on the Florian online menu
Cost of Carnival tray: 13.00 euros