For the first time this year, nonna
decided not to whip up the traditional Carnival fry up. The daughters and sons, nieces and nephews and the whole extended family were left without her signature frittelle
. Empty handed, they were all forced to buy them from the bakery instead.
The news popped up on my phone screen like breaking news. Outrage! How could this ever happen? I was told that, at the young age of 95, she was feeling too tired to roll doughs and stand in front of the frying pan for long hours. To make up for the loss, Aunt, who lives with her, picked up on the duty of making a small batch of fried tortelli stuffed with pumpkin and amaretti – another classic concoction in my family – in the attempt to still celebrate Carnival. This, of course, not without nonna’s vigilant surveillance. It was reported that she did very well indeed.
Carnival is to a Venetian what Halloween is to most people: the perfect occasion to wear fancy dresses, party all night, and eat a pile of sweet treats.
Many identify the Carnevale di Venezia with folks dressed in 18th-century masks who peacocking around St Mark’s Square. But that’s not all: there are parties for the youth of Veneto to let its hair down; all sorts of activities for children and families organised all over the city; and, most importantly, there is food.
At the core of the Venetian Carnival is a spirit of excess – of enjoyment of all sorts of mundane, sensual pleasures. Because it occurs right before Lent (the time of the year when Catholics are meant to give up all carnal temptations), Carnival is the perfect excuse to live life to the fullest before reverting to a more moderate lifestyle. Fasting and virtuous abstinence are just around the corner, so one might as well make the most of life before then.
Following the same spirit of excess, the traditional foods of the carnevale are some of the most decadent and scrumptious out there. Often sweet, coated in sugar, at times stuffed with custard and cream, they are almost always unmistakenly fried.
I had almost forgotten how glorious springtime in Veneto can be. How warm the May sun can shine, and how pleasant it is to eat lunch outside with the white roses intertwined around the wooden pergola. How early strawberries ripen here, and how late the sun sets. I had almost forgotten how much I yearned for some proper spring weather in the past four years, despite the blooming magnolias and the dangling wisteria. I am reminded now, here, sitting at my old desk, the window wide open and a sweet scent of orange blossoms blowing from the garden.
Two weeks in my homeland and I’ve already fallen into some good old habits: munching on pan biscotto (some local sort of crunchy bread) while waiting for lunch; circling the house and the garden multiple times throughout the day in search for ideas; going for long walks turned into foraging expeditions; and drinking too much espresso, sometimes with a dash of grappa, too, usually on Sundays.
Whenever we go for walks together, Dad joins me in my foraging efforts, mostly because he loves weeds as much as I do. On our last trip, for instance, we found dandelion, nettle, and bruscandoli (wild hops), the holy trinity of Venetian wild edible plants. We picked two bagfuls in total, then proceeded to wash them and turn them into a huge skillet of stir-fried greens with pancetta, a nettle frittata, and a risotto with wild hops, which were still surprisingly tender and reminiscent of rosemary.
And now that the last of the young shoots and leaves have morphed into tough grown-ups, it’s time to pick edible wildflowers. Late spring is their moment. Florid bushy trees of elderflower (sambuco) and black locust (faux acacia or robinia) grow between parcels of land. Their branches have been heavy with flowers for weeks now – one can smell them before even seeing them. Black locust flowers – dangling clusters of tiny, intensely perfumed white flowers – are slowly coming to an end, though many trees are still in bloom. We have been picking basketfuls of flowers to fill every vase in the house, their beauty and sweetness a fleeting bliss before they fade and wither and bend, spent.
Making coffee at home in the morning is a ritual Jesse and I shared from day one. It was a habit that preceded our relationship, that we brought together effortlessly. Of course, the habit of making moka pot coffee was mine before it was ours – Jesse was always brewing his cup with a French press before moving to Italy – yet it entered our joined life without much questioning. Living in Italy, the ritual and gestures just made their way into our morning routine quite naturally.
I write this as the Christmas tree sparkles in front of me, a clear morning sky and a bright sun in the background. The air is cold and pungent, perfect to wake you up after a long sleep. One more day off before we get back, a few more hours of festive celebrations. We haven’t quite given up sweets and rich foods for the January detox regime just yet…there is still some panettone left for breakfast, good for dipping into a steamy cup of coffee. There is still Epiphany today, the last day of the holiday season when stockings are filled with sweets and citrus and nuts.