Semel in anno licet insanire! (Once a year you are allowed to go crazy!)
There are places in Italy where Carnevale is very much an adult affair. Venice, for example, with her elaborate Baroque costumes and gala balls. Viareggio, with her gargantuan paper mache floats (eye-popping for the little ones, but with satirical political and social themes that fly right over their heads). In Umbria, however, Carnevale is primarily for kids (with a few nostalgic adults thrown in here and there), focusing on costume parties, parades, and lots and lots of fried, sugary foods.
As I didn’t grow up with the tradition of Carnevale (in the US it is only celebrated with any real feeling in New Orleans), I have acquired a taste for it only over the past few years as a parent. Unfortunately, I’ve especially acquired a taste for the calorie-laden Carnevale fare, which takes the full forty days of penance before Easter (known as the Quaresima, which Carnevale ushers in) to work off.
For those who, like me, aren’t well-versed in the tradition, Carnevale is a month-ish long festival which culminates in the “Fat Days”–from the Thursday through the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. The festival was, as were many in the Middle Ages, coopted from pagan tradition by the Christians, and in many parts of Italy evolved into a swan song of bacchanalian and carnal overindulgence before the period of penitance and purifying deprivation before Easter.
In many parts of Italy—primarily Bergamo and Naples–there are traditional maschere, translated as masks, but intended to mean both the costume and accompanying character—with a specific personality and personal history–which have been codified over the centuries. One of the few which may be familiar to those outside of Italy is Arlecchino (Harlequin), who wears a black mask covering his eyes and a suit of multi-colored diamonds stitched together, and sports a stick and pouch attached to his belt. He is an opportunist, perennially penniless (his pouch is empty), and ready to serve anyone who is willing to pay his debts and foot the bill for his gluttonous habits. He is extremely agile in his movements, and a well-played Arlecchino skips around nimbly on the balls of his feet. There are dozens of such stock maschere, immediately recognizable to Italians.
Unfortunately, Umbria—along with most of the modern Italian regions of Romagna, Marche, and Lazio–spent the Middle Ages under the severe and heavy-hand of the Papal State, so while neighboring regions were living it up and developing strong Carnival traditions, the Umbrians were busy wearing hair shirts and building monasteries. That said, though late to the game, modern Umbria has embraced the fun whole-heartedly and adopted both the traditions and the maschere of other Italian regions.
Most Carnevale dishes are found throughout Italy during the weeks of the festivities in more or less the same forms, but rarely are they called by the same name in different regions. Here’s what to sample in Umbria:
Brighelle (aka Castagnole): My drug of choice. These walnut-sized fried bignet-like puffs are filled with custard or, my personal favorite, crema chantilly (what Italians call custard cut with whipped cream). Perfect to pop in your mouth, by the time you realize you’ve overdosed it’s too late. Good brighelle are crisp on the outside (with a light dusting of sugar), extremely light, and have a fresh—not too eggy—filling.
Struffoli: Umbria’s answer to the doughnut hole, struffoli are essentially fried balls of dough dribbled with honey and/or a red-colored liquor known as Alchermes. These are a little more of a committment to eat, as they are usually too large to toss down the gullet in one go, and involve some intense finger-licking afterwards. Like doughtnut holes, good ones are light on the inside and surrounded by a crisp fried layer. Bad struffoli (which abound) are dry as sand on the inside and engorged with frying oil on the outside.
Cicerchiata: Imagine if you were to make about a thousand mini-struffoli the size of chickpeas (ceci, from which the sweet derives its name), soak them in honey, and form them into a rectangular or bundt cake shape. Then, just to make them sweeter, you sprinkled the whole thing with those little colored sprinkles or silver dragées. My kids live for these.
Chiacchiere (aka frappe or cenci): Fried again (do you notice a theme?), these are irregularly cut strips of thinly rolled dough fried to a crisp and dusted with sugar or dribbled with honey and/or Alchermes. The name they are known as in most of Umbria (chit-chat) gives a sense of how light and fragile a good plate of chiacchiere should be.
Again, Carnevale in Umbria is mostly about the young’uns (though many clubs and pubs have light-hearted costume parties the final weekend of the festivities). You’ll see the piazzas filled with mini-Zorros and Cinderellas and sundry mammals and ballerinas, most of whom are sporting cans of silly string and shaving cream (I suggest you not wear your best coat) and bags of confetti (called coriandoli in Italian. Confetti in Italian means jordan almonds. That took me a long time to wrap my head around.). Most of the merry-making centers around a parade with floats and various types of entertainment involving balloon animals, face painting, and sing-alongs. Big fun for the twelve-and-under crowd and anyone who loves to people-watch. The best ones in the region are:
Sant’Eraclio: an otherwise completely un-noteworthy suburb of Foligno. But they put on a great Carnivale parade. It costs €5 to get in unless you are wearing a costume. (Each Sunday during Carnival)
Acquasparta: smaller than Sant’Eraclio, but still fun. And free. (Each Sunday during Carnival)
Todi: a bit more highbrow, Todi puts on a medieval-themed Carnivale in historic center’s lovely piazza. A good choice for the 12-and-above contingency.
Gubbio: one of my favorite towns in Umbria, any excuse is a good one to visit. Their Carnevale fete is heavy on the marching bands, which is always fun. (The last two Sundays of Carnival)
San Sisto: a suburb of Perugia holds one of the biggest Carnevale parades in the city, complete with struffoli and chiacchiere (which they call frappe) bake-off. That’s why I’d go. (Final two Sundays of Carnival, plus Fat Saturday–the bake-off–and Fat Tuesday)