Martedì Grasso or Mardi Gras means ‘Fat Tuesday’, and both sound to me much more fun than Shrove Tuesday. ‘Shrove’ is the past tense of ‘shrive’ which comes from an Old English word meaning to impose as a penance. In England we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. When made well and sprinkled with lemon juice and powdered sugar, I wouldn’t call them a penance, but they are meagre fare compared to the feasts of the last day of Carnevale or Carnival in Italy and most other Catholic countries. Meagre comes from a Middle English word meaning lean and was used in cookbooks at least until the mid-19th century to describe meatless recipes suitable for Fridays and Lent. Carnevale comes from ‘carne (le)vare’ and referred to the banquet on the evening before Ash Wednesday at which the diners stuffed themselves with meat while saying farewell to it. Obviously it has to be close at hand to hear the ‘arrivederci’. Parting is such sweet sorrow that the good-byes now begin as early as Epiphany (6 January) and are repeated regularly in public revelry, huge processions of fantastical floats, fancy-dress parties and banquets until the final bash this Tuesday 16 February. [Postponed until September 2021 due to Covid-19.]
I know Carnevale has arrived in Casabasciana when I go to the village shop on a Saturday morning near the end of January and see on the counter a box of chiacchiere and am assaulted by an instant attack of the munchies.
They’re one species out of a whole genus of fried dough strips flavoured with a little alcohol and sprinkled with powdered sugar which flake lightly between your teeth. They could be said to be the Italian equivalent of English pancakes, a delicious sweet titbit, but rather than saving them parsimoniously for ‘Fat Tuesday’, the Italians spread them lavishly throughout Carnival. Even while crunching my way through these heavenly pastries, my mind carries me forward to a fortnight later when Eugenia’s homemade chiacchiere will appear in the shop — even lighter, crisper, less sweet, more melt-in-the mouth. She allowed me into her kitchen while she was making them.
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