Thursday, January 31, 2013

Carnival in Italy

By Patricia Winton

Christmas decorations—always on display in Italy until at least January 6—have barely been packed away. Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) still hangs by his rope ladder from a few balconies. Twinkling lights linger on lampposts here and there, but Italians, adults and children alike, are already preparing for the next celebration—Carnevale

Pope Benedict figure at 2008 Viarregio Parade
This pre-Lenten ritual offers adults ample opportunities to carouse in Venice or Viareggio. In Venice, adults dress in elaborate costumes and parade among the canals wearing hand-crafted masks. Venetian mask-makers enjoy a rarefied status, and their products are sold year round in alluring shops that invite residents and tourists alike to spend money. In Viareggio, parade floats mirror the artistry of Venetian masks. Originating in 1873, the Viareggio parade, which snakes along the sea, features giant caricatures of politicians, entertainers, and other famous people. No one is immune to being targeted. In both cities, adults party, dance, and drink.

That goes for other cities as well, but across lo stivale, the boot, children reign at carnival time. Until recently, Halloween didn’t figure in Italian celebrations, so Carnevale provided children a chance to dress up. Shops catering to children display elaborate costumes, and searching for just the right one is as intensive as shopping for the first day of school. But these costumes are not held for just one day. For the next couple of weeks, principesse (princesses) and pirati (pirates), Cappucetto Rosso (Little Red Riding Hood) and Ragno (Spiderman) will make their way to school, walk along the sidewalk, and play in the piazzas. Even babies get into the act as bumblebees and Teletubbies, though Tinky-Winky is known here as “Twinkle.”

Photo by pierofix via Photopin
Shops have stocked up on bags of confetti (called coriandoli, “coriander”) which little costumed creatures cast at passersby as they charge down the street. That’s the most innocuous of their weapons. Packs of festoni (streamers) hail from almost every shop. Children fling these tightly rolled paper strands along the pavement, too. It’s not uncommon to encounter Tinker Bell, or other characters, with these paper ribbons in her hair. The gutters are full of them on the festival wanes. Streamers are not only the realm of children, however; adults play with them, too. A couple of years ago, I went to a relatively staid event at a restaurant just before Martedì Grasso. While we waited for desert, the hostess distributed festoni, and we tossed them around the room like children—and we weren’t even in costume!

Carnevale in Venice
But the most nefarious weapon in the children’s carnival arsenal is Silly String. When little tykes are given a can by doting parents, they run around giggling with glee, squirting at anything that moves. It wouldn’t be so bad it they just targeted each other, but they often choose to ambush unsuspecting me. The stuff sticks to the sidewalks, and as Easter approaches, hapless doorkeepers are out with brooms trying to get the stuff up. During the solemn Lenten period, the colored tendrils clinging to the sidewalk gradually wear away from the footsteps grinding them. By the time Spring is in full swing, they have been forgotten. Fortunately, Silly String disappears with Lent, not to reappear until the following year.

Even on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, children appear in their Carnevale finery, usually swathed in scarves and woolen hats to stave off the cold. And underneath those costumes, they’ll be bundled in sweaters and undervests. They carry their favorite weapons and battle it out in the piazzas after church.

I’m looking forward to watching the children in costume again this year. It’s a rite that proves Spring is indeed on the way.

Be sure to follow me at Novel Adventurers on alternate Thursdays. Next week I'm writing about shopping. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Zuppa di Zucca

By Patricia Winton

We’ve been having gray, rainy days of late here in Rome, and my thoughts center on warming soup (zuppa). One of my favorites, pumpkin (zucca) and chick pea (ceci) soup, comes with many variations. It’s one of those dishes that can be made from scratch or cobbled together from canned ingredients. Either way, a little careful seasoning perks up the flavors, and the soup can warm you to your toes.

Traditionally, the soup begins the day before when the ceci are put in a bowl of water to soak. After about twelve hours, they’ve absorbed enough moisture to ensure fairly rapid cooking. Here in Rome another soup reigns on Friday, and market stalls offer bags of pre-soaked ceci each week. Those provide a great short-cut. The ceci go into a pot along with a couple of cloves of garlic, chopped carrot, chopped celery, and a sprig of rosemary. These are simmered until the ceci are almost soft.

In Italy, you buy pumpkin by the slice. The canned variety is never available except at a tony shop at Thanksgiving; you need a second mortgage to buy a can, too. The fresh slice is quite hard to peel, so I usually nuke it a few minutes and scoop out the pulp. The pumpkin joins the ceci, and the simmering resumes until all the veggies are soft. At this point, many people add rice or pasta, but I prefer it plain. I do like a dash of hot pepper, however. At this point, I remove the rosemary and puree the soup with the stick blender or food processor. I serve it forth with a bit of grated Parmesan.

Try this simplified version.


2 cloves garlic
1 rib of celery
1 carrot
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cans chick peas
1 1/2 cups water
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1 can pumpkin
pinch of ground red pepper
salt and pepper to taste
grated Parmesan

1. Chop together the garlic, celery, and rosemary.
2. Heat the olive oil in a pot, and add the vegetables. Cook until soft, but not brown.
3. Drain and rinse the chick peas and add them to the vegetables. Pour in the water, cook for about 10 minutes over slow flame.
4. Stir in the pumpkin. Add a bit more water if the mixture seems too thick. Simmer another 5 minutes.
5. Remove the rosemary, and add the red pepper. Taste for seasoning. Since the canned vegetables will contain salt, you may not need more.
6. Serve with grated Parmesan.

NOTE: You can dress this up by adding small pasta, rice, or even tiny shrimp. It’s also good with bits of sausage.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Christmas Witch

I'm still recovering from the holiday blahs, so I'm reprinting here a post that appeared at Novel Adventurers on December 29, 2011. It's a story worth repeating.

The Befana at St. Peter's
Who flies across the world on a cold winter night filling children’s stockings with presents? Santa Claus? Well, yes, but not on the night of January 5. That’s the Befana, a good witch adored by Italian adults and children alike.

January 6 is Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, marking the arrival of the three Wise Men at the manger with gifts for the baby Jesus. It’s also a national holiday in Italy, marking the last day of the Christmas season.

According to an Italian legend, the Magi stopped at an old woman’s hut on the night of January 5, asking for directions to the Christ child. The old woman didn’t know, so they asked her to join them. She told them that she was too busy cleaning her house.

Later, when she saw the bright star, she changed her mind and went in search of the manger bearing gifts but didn’t find it. In one version of the legend, she became so distraught at being unable to find the child that she cried. Her tears fell onto her broom, which in her haste she had brought along. The purity of her tears gave magical powers to the broom, allowing her to fly on it.

In another version, she has lost a child, perhaps killed by Herod's men who were charged with destroying all newborns to prevent a Savior coming into the world. In her quest, she found the Christ child and thought it was her baby. The baby Jesus was so sympathetic that he gave her broom its magical powers and allowed her to be the mother of all children for one night each year.

Candy Coal
Since then, every year on the night of January 5, the Befana flies all over the world, filling good children’s stockings with presents and candy and leaving lumps of coal for bad ones. Because she is a good housekeeper, she may also sweep a bit.

The Befana tradition has existed on the Italian peninsula for centuries, and it may have its origin in an ancient Roman celebration called Saturnalia, which began around winter solstice and lasted for about ten days. At the end of the festival, Romans went to the Capitoline hill to have their augurs (fortunes) read, perhaps by an old woman.

The Befana is dressed in old, tattered clothing with a shawl on her shoulders and a scarf on her head. She carries her gifts in a bundle on her back. She’s smudged with soot because she comes through the chimney like Santa Claus (how does his beard stay so white?).

Before the children go to bed on January 5, they put out treats for the Befana, including a small glass of wine. Tradition has it that if you see the Befana, she thumps you with her broom. That may have been an inducement created by parents to get the children off to bed early!


The Regatta in Venice
Today, there are celebrations throughout Italy both on the evening of the fifth and on Epiphany itself with processions, fireworks, and more. In Vatican City, people in medieval dress march to St. Peter’s with gifts for the Pope; in Venice, the Regatta della Befana is raced on the Grand Canal; in Florence, a medieval parade marches from the Pitti Palace across the Ponte Vecchio to the cathedral.

When I’m asked what we do for Befana in America and I say we don’t have Befana, people—old and young alike—are stunned. They shake their heads in wonder. No Befana! How can that be?

I hope you'll join me next Thursday for Novel Adventurers. Next week, we're writing about "Bodies of Water."