Every year, during the two weeks preceding Lent, the Carnevale brings color, music and obviously a bit of joyful madness in the city.
The tastiest among all excesses appears along the alleyways well before the official opening of the celebrations: starting January, 7th – that is after the day of Epiphany – the shop windows of Venetian patisseries exhibit the sweet frittelle. It is a crescendo of scents and colors that is striking for its variety, although the recipe is very simple: a batter made of eggs and flour fried in boiling oil.
The first historic hint of the frittelle appears in a legislative document dated 1473. The Maggior Consiglio, the most important legislative body in the Venetian State, intending to prevent noble families from indulging in gluttony and wasting food, prohibited specific species of game, but allowed the consumption of gelatine and frittelle.
In Venice craftsmen were gathered into guilds called arti: the frittelle were prepared by the Arte dei fritoleri (the Fritter makers).
Their guild was probably established at the beginning of the 17th century, given that its statute (known as mariegola in the Venetian language) dates to 1609. From this text we learn that this activity took place inside square wooden shacks, on which the list of ingredients had to be exposed.
It seems that this requirement fell out of use over the course of the following century if we rely on the painting by Pietro Longhi, dated to 1750 and on display in the Museum of Ca’ Rezzonico, that depicts a female fritter maker working in an apparently open space.
In my childhood memories the frittelle are associated with a single shape and a single filling.
During the Carnevale our family used to devote at least one Sunday to the preparation of these sweets, under the direction of my grandmother Bianca.
In the morning we prepared the dough that had to be left to rise for a few hours, while the cooking took place in the early afternoon, after grandpa’s nap. It was like a small, intimate party, to which relatives and close friends were invited.
The frittelle were really simple: the size of walnuts and without any special filling, just a few raisins. I never complained about the size because I ate at least a dozen of them, and because I never appreciated raisins, I was the only one in the family to get a customized bowl.
I now acknowledge that for almost twenty years I ate only “empty” frittelle, basically plain dough fried in oil and covered by a thin veil of powdered sugar.
Moving to Venice opened my eyes and my taste buds to a brand new world.
Here frittelle are the size of small oranges, moreover they contain delicious fillings.
From the classic veneziana, where the dough is enriched with raisins and pine nuts, we move on to the more elaborate versions. Two fillings are considered historical: one with Chantilly cream and one with Zabaione cream. But in recent years a masterful development has taken place and we can find frittelle stuffed with fresh cream, ricotta cheese, Nutella, white chocolate cream and pistachio cream.
Although a good dough is essential, we can say that it’s the virtuosity in the frittelle fillings that determines the final result; which in this case is the final score of a real competition among local patisseries.
Last year in fact an anonymous local blogger launched a contest to find out the best frittelle in town, subdividing the challenge into three categories: classic, Chantilly cream filled and Zabaione filled.
Needless to say this playful competition was just a suggestion to try the largest number of frittelle; in fact a “rematch” will take place this year, to the joy of both pastry chefs and clients.
Finding recipes for frittelle on the Internet isn’t too hard, understanding which is the best is harder.
Thus I end this post with the only recipe I trust, my grandmother Bianca’s.
List of ingredients:
2.5 hg of sugar
1 lemon skin, 2 orange skins, 2 red apples (everything must be grated)
0.75 kg of flour
half spoon of baking soda
2 spoons of rum
2 hg of raisin
1 liter of sunflower oil
Stir together all the ingredients (except the oil) until well blended. Let the batter rise for at least two hours. Drop spoonfuls of the batter into the hot oil and fry until golden on both sides.
For those interested in reading a text presenting Venetian recipes in a historic context, I suggest:
P. Agostini, A. Zorzi, A tavola con i dogi, 2007 English edition.