The noise is audible from inside the train carriage as we glide across the Ponte della Libertà and into Santa Lucia station. Whistles, horns, drums, occasional shouts, festive choruses, and bursts of laughter. With too much luggage in tow, I disembark the train. From the top of the station steps the scene below is arresting – a full-swing masquerade party is in motion on the streets. Women in curled white wigs and enormous bustles, men in every manner of decorative mask, and children decorously dressed as little barons and baronesses (or less decorously, and more frequently, as little superheroes!).
It is the central weekend of the Carnevale di Venezia, an unseasonably warm and bright day in February, and, I now realize, the entirely wrong day on which arrive needing to traverse Venice carrying three weeks worth of luggage. My plan had simply been to stride down the stairs, onto a waiting vaporetto, disembark at the Rialto, and be all settled into my temporary new home in the space of thirty minutes. With the normally efficient railway piazza transformed into an uncrossable terrain of revelry however, there is simply no other option but for me and my baggage to join in the festive crush of human traffic, and get pushed where the flow is to take us…
About two hours later, with afternoon giving way to evening, and bags thankfully deposited along the way, I am finally spat from the human thicket of narrow laneways into the open space of the Piazza di San Marco. This is Carnevale centrale and the best place to observe the masked revelers parade their costumes.
Groups on their way to balls stroll arm in arm, happy to linger scenically by lamp posts and columns to appease photographers. Through the Piazzetta, against a backdrop of bobbing gondole, spookily clad mimes pull slowly changing poses.
At the edge of the Piazza, inside the famous Café Florian, groups of decadently dressed party-goers dramatically sip at their tea and apertivi, providing an almost Christmas-window like show to less wonderfully attired observers who clamber for a glimpse outside.
The wearing of masks is a long held tradition in Venice, with various complex laws introduced and rescinded throughout history dictating who could and who could not wear masks, and when these may, and may not be worn. At certain times in history, it was forbidden for masks to be worn at night, while at others, it was required that they must always be worn for the maintenance of anonymity, during political voting for instance. At one particularly ridiculous point, it was even decreed that masks must especially never be worn in a convent (on the threat of two years shackled rowing as punishment) as the practice of making anonymous late night visits to drink with the nuns became a briefly popular activity in the morally declining Serenissma!
As is frequently the case, men seem to have gotten a slightly better deal out of mask wearing than women. Traditional men’s masks protrude at the mouth, allowing the wearer to eat and drink whilst masked. Traditional women’s masks, on the other hand, are not so accommodating, with some even requiring the wearer to bite down on a button constantly to keep the mask in place, rendering not only eating, but also speaking impossible!
When I look back on my stay in Venice during Carnevale however, I am tempted to think that such a mask might not have been an altogether bad idea. Rich foods and gluttonous overconsumption are part of the festival spirit. Carnevale, after all, is a festival that owes its existence to a logic of extremes – it’s a last hurray, the final opportunity to be very very bad, before forty days worth of Lent in which one must be very very good. It makes perfect sense – if, of course, you observe Lent. Only, I don’t, and was so keen to recreate all the wonderful Carnevale foods at home, that my period of festive over-indulgence is now approaching four weeks straight...
Perhaps the most famous of the special Carnevale foods in Venice are frittelle. Little donuts, filled or unfilled, sometimes with the addition of grappa-soaked raisins, or pine nuts, served ubiquitously, and eaten on a pretty much daily basis by me! The most delicious (and correspondingly famous) frittelle in Venice can be found at the Pasticceria Tonnolo, nearby the Campo Santa Margarita.
Unlike some frittelle, those at Tonnolo are absolutely chocked to the brim with filling, despite being quite daintily sized. Choose from Chantilly cream, chocolate, or a perfectly boozy, oozy zabaione (my inevitable favourite). The recipe I’ve included below is tribute to the Tonnolo Zabaione fritelle, which, given that these are only available during Carnevale, will have to do for me now until next year.
The other recipe below, for Ragù Bianco, is not specific to Carnevale, but is fitting, I think, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the idea of a ragù senza pomodori in Venice by Anna & Anna, the lovely cooks at the Instituto Venezia, who showed me how to make a delicious duck version. Also, given that one interpretation of the term ‘Carnevale’ suggests that the name describes a festival of ‘carne’ or ‘meat,’ I thought it appropriate for my version to do that very Italian thing of combining beef, pork, and chicken into one excessive and deliciously rich concoction.
Both dishes, the frittelle and the ragù, are flavoured with Marsala, which, although not Venetian in origin will, after daily indulging in fritelle con zabaione, forever be the taste of Carnevale for me.
Homemade Gnocchi with Ragù Bianco
It is conventional to make Ragù Bianco with chicken livers (or with duck livers as per the Annas’ version). You can certainly introduce liver to the recipe below should you wish to, but I think that the combination of meats in this recipe does enough for depth of flavour without the need to add liver too.
Homemade gnocchi are definitely worth the effort – it's essentially the only way to go about things if you want gnocchi that are cloud-like and light. Making the dough itself is easy enough, rolling everything out and forming individual pieces from the super-soft dough is where things can get a little tricky, but practice makes perfect.
Gnocchi di Patate
- 800g floury potatoes (approx. 2-3 large potatoes)
- 2 eggs – lightly whisked
- 120g plain flour – sifted
- Salt & white pepper
- 200g lean minced beef
- 200g minced pork
- 100g minced chicken
- 60g butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ brown onion – finely chopped
- 1 small leek – very finely chopped (white part only)
- 1 celery stalk – very finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic – crushed
- 120ml dry white wine
- 120ml Marsala wine
- 1 small nutmeg – finely grated
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt & freshly ground black pepper
- Drizzle of fresh pouring cream (approx. 3 tablespoons)
- Small bunch of fresh sage – leaves picked
- Freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino to serve.
It is best to have a potato ricer or mouli for this recipe. You can try mashing the potato by hand, but are unlikely to end up with the desired airy texture.
In a wide, heavy-based pan, heat half of the butter (i.e. 30g), together with the olive oil, over a low-medium heat. Add the chopped onion, leek, and celery, and fry slowly, for between 8-10 minutes until soft and translucent, but not browned. About half way through this cooking time, add the crushed garlic, and stir, taking care that the garlic does not stick or burn.
The slow frying of aromatics such as onion, leeks, celery, carrots, and garlic, known in French as ‘mirepoix’ is called ‘soffritto’ in Italian, and forms the base for a number of traditional soups, sauces and stews – particularly those from the north of Italy.
Turn the heat up slightly beneath the soffritto and add the beef, pork, and chicken. Cook these gently, breaking the mince apart with a wooden spoon as you stir. When the mince is sealed on all sides, and is just beginning to brown, add the white wine and the Marsala.
Now, turn the heat to a low setting, grate in the nutmeg and add the bay leaf. Season with salt and a few grinds of black pepper to taste.
The sauce can now be left to cook down very gently for between 1½ and 2hrs – until the meat acquires a soft texture and a little oil has risen to the surface of the sauce. If the sauce begins to look dry at any point during the cooking, add a small splash of water, up to about 100ml if necessary.
For the gnocchi, boil the potatoes, skin on, in a large pot of salted water. Cook until soft all the way through, (test this with the tip of a sharp pointed knife), and then drain and leave aside a few moments until they are cool enough to handle. Using your fingers, peel the skins from the potatoes and discard these. The skin should come away easily from the warm potatoes.
Pass the peeled potatoes through a ricer, and then transfer back to the empty saucepan. Heat the riced potato gently over a low heat for approximately 4 minutes, allowing steam to escape, and stirring gently until the potato comes together to form a loose ball. The purpose of this step is to dry the potatoes further, ensuring a light textured gnocchi, as well as to bring the potato together to form the beginning of a dough.
Turn the potato ‘dough’ out onto a clean, lightly floured surface. Form a well or indentation in the centre of the potato, and add to this the lightly whisked eggs, a little salt and white pepper, as well as the sifted flour. Mix together until evenly blended, but take care not to over-work or the dough will become heavy. A soft, airy texture is ideal, but if your mixture is so soft that it won’t withstand cooking, add a little more flour to stiffen it.
To shape the gnocchi, pinch a small ball of dough, and roll on a lightly floured surface to form a long, smooth sausage shape, about the thickness of a finger. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into small squares (or little pillows as I like to think of them), flicking the knife quickly as you cut to move each one aside, allowing you to cut the next.
To cook the gnocchi, place a large pot of lightly salted water on to boil.
When this has begun to boil, place a wide frying pan over medium heat, and add the remaining butter.
Now check the ragù, at this point it should be sufficiently cooked down, and no longer liquid-y. Quickly double check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. If you have already turned the heat off below the cooked sauce, now is the time to bring it back up to temperature over a low-medium heat.
The gnocchi only take 2 minutes to cook, so the assembly of the dish happens quickly from here, and all the component parts should be ready to go.
Handling the gnocchi very carefully, place these into the rapidly boiling water. Start timing your 2 minutes cooking from the moment the gnocchi bob to the surface of the water.
Next, add the sage leaves to the butter, and fry gently.
Lastly, drizzle the cream into the ragù, and stir through to heat.
Once cooked, drain the gnocchi carefully through a colander and add to the warm butter and sage, tossing to coat.
(If you would prefer to prepare the gnocchi some time prior to serving, they can also be lightly oiled post-boiling and spread out in a layer on greaseproof paper to chill in the fridge. Re-heat by refreshing in boiling water briefly, and then re-introduce at the sage-butter stage).
Once coated in the butter and sage, add the gnocchi directly to the ragù, and stir gently to combine.
Serve immediately, with a generous helping of grated Parmesean or Pecorino sprinkled on top.
Frittelle con Zabaione
Frittelle say so much about the spirit of Carnevale – they are sweet, festive, and exceedingly naughty. It is perhaps a little naughty even, to post a recipe for them, given how tempting it could become to make them often, and not just occasionally. So, while I’ll provide the recipe, the self control bit is up to you…
With eternal thanks to my Instituto Venezia pals You Jia and Birgit for introducing me to Tonnolo.
(Serves 4 – approx. 16 medium-sized frittelle)
For the Frittelle
- 180g plain flour – sifted
- Scant teaspoon instant yeast
- 2 egg yolks – lightly whisked
- 2 tablespoons caster sugar
- 1 tablespoon melted butter
- Pinch of salt
- 125ml whole milk
For the Zabaione
- 3 egg yolks
- 70g caster sugar
- 120ml sweet Marsala wine
- Sunflower or canola oil for deep frying – approx. 750ml
- Extra caster sugar for dusting
It is helpful to have a heat-proof plastic squeezy bottle (i.e. a condiments bottle) for piping the filling into the frittelle. All the better if it has a fine nib. Failing this, a piping kit will work, however it is easier to keep the zabaione warm in a water bath using a squeezy bottle than a piping bag.
Slightly warm approximately 50ml of the milk and mix the yeast along with one tablespoon of the sugar into this.
In a large bowl, combine the sifted flour, salt, remaining tablespoon of sugar, the melted butter, and the remaining milk. Mix together, and then add the lightly whisked egg yolks. Mix again to combine, before adding the yeast mixture and stirring this through.
Your mixture should now have a batter consistency. If it doesn’t, and is looking more doughy than batter-like, add a little more milk.
The batter now needs to be set aside in order to allow the yeast to do its work. Cover with cling film or a damp tea towel and set aside in a warm place for approximately 2hrs.
Meanwhile, prepare the zabaione by mixing together the egg yolks, sugar, and the Marsala in a metal bowl. Place this over a saucepan of boiling water, and whisk constantly until the mixture thickens considerably, to a custard consistency. This can take a long time, 10 minutes plus – so hang in there!
If you feel very confident of your custard making abilities, you can dispense with the double boiler method, and just heat the ingredients together directly in a small saucepan. Though the other advantage of whisking in a bowl is, of course, that it has rounded sides so allows you to easily reach into the corners without the need for a pointed whisk.
When the zabaione is thick and glossy, take it off the heat, and continue to whisk vigourously for another 3 minutes while it cools a little. Now pour into a heat-proof plastic squeezy bottle and keep this warm in a water bath over a very low heat.
After two hours of resting, the frittelle batter should have risen considerably, and be bubbly in texture. Give it a quick stir to blend, and you are now ready to cook.
Fill a deep saucepan just over half way with sunflower or canola oil and heat to 160°C – the temperature at which a toothpick dropped in the oil will begin to bubble. Take care not to heat to a higher temperature than this as otherwise the frittelle will quickly burn.
Dip a small spoon in the hot oil, then use this to scoop up a dollop of the batter. Carefully drop the batter from the spoon into the oil. The frittelle should be ball shaped and not over-large.
Fry in batches, up to 4 at a time.
In theory, a perfect frittella will turn itself over at exactly the right time during cooking, but this doesn’t always happen, so if your frittelle are uncooperative, gently turn them over with a spoon when they are golden on one side.
Remove when golden on both sides, and drain on absorbent paper.
Roll the still-warm frtittelle in caster sugar to coat, then, using the nib of the squeezy bottle, inject a filling of warm zabaione into each frittelle.
Serve immediately, and, now you have the recipe, year-round!
On the last day of Carnevale 2014, at around midday, the acqua alta siren sounded in Venice warning residents and visitors of impending flooding – an exceedingly rare event for March. Stay inside we were warned, the water will be deep and horrible. But curiosity prevailed, so, accompanied by a friend and armed with hastily bought and shoddily constructed boot covers, off we plod through the rising tides to San Marco.
I had imagined acqua alta, or high water, to simply mean the rising of the canals, and expected there to be flooding only canal-side or in particularly low and lagoon-exposed areas such as the Riva Schiavoni and the Piazza di San Marco. What I had not understood was how the ‘land’ beneath the city itself also becomes saturated by the rising tide, sending water up from below, such that it bubbles through and floods everything at once – even areas that ostensibly seem quite ‘high’ or far from the canals themselves.
In the Piazza the water is almost a metre high in some places. The advent of the flooding has, undeniably, lent an enjoyable fin de siècle spirit to the dying day of Carnevale. People are quick to abandon leaking boot covers, and dance joyfully bare-footed on the café tables. But, watching the confetti and colourful debris of Carnivale being swept from San Marco and pulled out into the lagoon on the tide also serves as a sobering reminder – not only of how very precarious the existence of this remarkable city is, but also of how important it is that this existence be preserved.