Since Carnival was “relaunched” in 1978, the pasticcerie – pastry stores in Venice have been playing an important role in re-creating the culinary tradition of winter sweets and drinks. Many historical recipes changed their names and sometimes survived as “family” recipes passed on from one generation to another. Often, the historical component of such a recipe was forgotten or only vaguely present at the back of our minds.
That’s what happened to the former Venetian National Sweet, Le Fritoe. Today, you know them as Carnival fritelles, fritole / fritoe in Venetian. I can’t remember eating fritoe in a bar-caffé in Venice as a child in the 1980s and 1990s but I do remember so many cups of warming, creamy hot chocolate (cioccolata densa), flavored chocolates, spice tea and soft cookies, mostly zaleti. I remember how once, in 2009, Caffé Florian arranged their zaleti on a side table showing off all the ingredients like the rum-flavored sultanas you can see below.
In the early 2000s, Carnival specialties were still all about offering the latest flavor of hot chocolate, like Caffè Lavena in Venice did, creating a delicious cioccolata calda all’amaretto, my mother’s favorite. And there were so many cookies, in particular the yellow zaleti made from maize flour (farina di grano turco) and an incredible variety of chocolates that you can still see in the windows of the pastry stores lining Strada Nova.
Off the beaten path in Venice, there’s still the look and feel of the 1990s, even on a Sunday morning during Carnival. Just like I’m telling in this story on the Carnival of my childhood, Carnival – Past and Present.
Pasticceria Nobile, for example, specializes in making tartufi (chocolate truffles) in winter and there are loads of trays in the windows for Carnival. A bit further along Strada Nova, near the train station, stopping at the windows of Cioccolateria Dal Mas you can see colorful chocolate animals next to orange and mint-flavored macaroons. They also offer fritelles in the winter, usually the vanilla-flavored and zabaione varieties..
Venice doesn’t just offer cookies and fritole during Carnival. You will also find delicious flavored drinks on the menu, so restoring after a long walk in the damp air. Just a few years ago, cafes in Venice started experimenting, with Caffè Florian offering orzata, which is flavored almond milk syrup diluted in water, and rediscovering “Chai Tea” during Carnival with their signature treat, Tè Florian 1720.
In the 18th century, when Florian was just starting out, cocoa powder and tea arrived in Venice via Spain and England and prompted the inventive spezeri, who had become coffee & pastry shop owners by then, to experiment with enriching coffee, chocolate and tea with spices. Chai in those times was simply called té spezià – spice tea.
But then, the most famous sweets Venice has to offer in late winter and during Carnival are fried ones. Fritelles, galani, castagnole, and they all come in many variations.
For example, every nonna I know in Venice has developed her own version of fritola. Our Nonna inherited a family recipe as well, fritoe al suco de naransa, which are fritoe flavored with freshly pressed orange juice. In addition to orange juice, we use a secret spice mixture.
In the original recipes dating back to the 13th century, fritoe were flavored with saffron and rose-water or with spices. In our recipe, which you will find below, we use cinnamon and a teaspoon lavender water, which blends well with the other ingredients.
With so many fritoe variants available in Venice today, the question is, which of these are historical? Which ones were eaten during Carnival at the times of the Serenissima Republic, and where can we still taste them in Venice?
The original fritole – le veneziane – were flavored with rose-water. These days, le veneziane often come flavored with ground lemon peel or grappa. Sometimes, they are filled with cream like zabaione which is an invention of the 19th century.
We have a recipe for black fritola, a favorite in the 18th century, flavored with cocoa powder and a spice mixture. This is my personal favorite. Now we’ve also got fritole cubane – flavored with rum – and it works, it feels warming and restoring. I tasted la cubana at Pasticceria Bonifacio in Calle Albanesi, near grandmother’s home.
True, in late winter you might also find yourselves in front of a plate of fragrant fritole alle mele – fritole filled with tiny pieces of apple and sultanas. Historically speaking, these are NOT fritole for Carnival but were eaten during Lent !! So yes, there will be another post on fritelles and other late winter sweets soon :-)
As promised, here’s our recipes for le veneziane (the basic fritelles recipe) and the orange-lavender flavored fritelles.
Ingredients: 180 gr flour (universal type), 8 gr yeast, 1/16 liter of milk, 1 egg, 3 spoonfuls of grappa, vanilla sugar, 10 gr butter, a pinch of salt, 5 spoonfuls of granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon powder.
In a bowl, carefully work the yeast and one spoonful granulated sugar into the warm milk. Add flour, grappa, vanilla sugar, butter and a hint of salt. Mix well and cover the bowl with a towel. Leave in a warm place until the the dough has doubled in size (it takes approximately one hour). With a spoon, form little heaps of dough and fry them in sun flower oil. Coat your fritole with a mixture of granulated sugar and cinnamon powder.
To prepare fritoe a la naransa, orange-flavored fritelles, mix 200 gr flour, 200 ml milk, a teaspoon cinnamon powder, a hint of salt, one egg, a tiny package of yeast, 10 gr peeled pine nuts, 10 gr sultanas, 50 gr powder sugar, 2 heaped tablespoons vanilla sugar, 1 heaped tablespoon orange-flavored sugar (which we make a home, by simply grating off the peel of an orange and mixing it with sugar), 1 tablespoon lavender water and 3-4 tablespoons freshly pressed orange juice.
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and dissolve a small package of yeast in another bowl with the warm milk. Leave it to rise in a warm place, covered with a tablecloth, for approximately one hour. Heat sunflower or olive oil in a pan, form tiny balls of dough with a spoon and fry them until golden brown. Leave the fritelles to drain on baking paper and while they are still warm, coat them with the orange sugar.
P.S: if we really have no time to make fritelles at home, we get ours from a bakery next to Campo San Luca. Colussi Il Fornaio is my favorite, not just for fritole but also for focaccia and panettón … plus a host of other seasonal delights :-) like chocolate and pistachio cookies.