Carnevale… enlivening the Tuscan winter.

Fritelle di riso – fluffy doughnut holes made with rice – a specialty in Tuscany before Carnival

In the winter I realize how much of my social life in Tuscany depends on good weather: the passeggiata, or evening stroll through town; a chat over gelato as the kids act out imaginary battles in the playground; dinners in the piazza with friends (as our rambunctious kids run around the pedestrian square); hikes and picnics with friends in the woods and hills while on the hunt for wild mushrooms, asparagus or greens. I realize this in the winter because it is usually too rainy, windy or cold to do any of this… and so we fall into the routine of being homebound and watching too much TV, with boredom staved off by the occasional board game, science or kitchen experiment. All of this comes to a climax after the Befana (January 6th), that a nursery rhyme reminds us “tutte le feste porta via”, as it is the last of the Christmas holidays.

And this is why Carnival is so important. Come February, when spring is not yet around the corner, I find that we all need an escape from the humdrum of winter life. Now Valentine’s day does help, but it is too often filled with expectations about our lives and relationships that can’t be or simply aren’t met… sort of a bittersweet holiday that excludes a lot of people from its happiness.

On Fat Tuesday children in Tuscany go to school in their Carnival costumes

But Carnival is for everyone, and it is full of the colors, clamor and mischief coming at the exact moment of the year when you need them most. There is fun for people of all ages (and it gets you out of the house!). This is when kids in Tuscany dress up in creative costumes like Americans would do at Halloween, they throw confetti (coriandoli) all over town, they make noise with every imaginable whistle and horn, and they are altogether rowdy, mischievous… and happy. And everyone laughs, sometimes they grumble a bit for all the chaos, but they let them be… it’s Carnival after all! As an American this utter confusion seemed just wrong to me at first, but over the years as a parent I’ve learned how cathartic it can be just to let go, be permissive, and have a good laugh too.

The other reason I love Carnival? The sweets. By mid-January, every bakery and grocery store in town lays out tempting trays of Carnival delights that are simply irressistible.  My favorite are the fritelle di riso, lightly fried balls of fluffy dough made with rice that are just barely sweet on the inside, but dusted with sugar. The other standard are fritelle farcite con crema, that are made with a dough similar to that of doughnuts and stuffed with custard. And last but not least are the cenci (literally “rags”) that are crunchy little rectangles of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar that crumble in your mouth.

And while I imagine that all of these sweets are part of the tradition of excess before Lent… I honestly have never met a Tuscan who has fasted for Lent. I suppose life’s too short to not enjoy the good things in life every single day and season!