The very Italian talent for dusting life with a thick layer of stardust is deployed liberally throughout the year. But perhaps it comes to the fore with greatest effect during Lent. In the Catholic tradition, this is meant to be the grimmest forty days in the calendar – a time of repentance and self-denial leading up to the commemoration of Jesus’s trial and agonizingly painful death. But in Italy it never seems to be quite that bad.
First of all, as in many other countries, there is Carnival - a brief spell of self-indulgence before the long weeks of abstinence. This is when, in Italy, you see small children on the streets dressed up in a range of bizarre outfits: some as princess, others as ghouls, superheroes, priates and so on. Depending on the calendar, Carnival falls some time in the period from early February to early March, and the children’s costumes introduce a touch of colour to one of the more doleful phases of the year.
Carnevale, like every other festival in the Italian calendar, also brings with it a range of seasonal delicacies like sfrappole (thin strips of pastry that are fried and sugared) and castagnole or fritelle (little doughnuts sprinkled with sugar and filled with crème patisserie). These hypercalorific delights are meant to be swept from the shops once Lent begins, yet somehow they remain temptingly available for weeks after Ash Wednesday…
He tells us many fascinating things about Italian food – for instance that in Rome you eat gnocchi on Thursdays, but no-one quite knows why. He looks at the importance of food and of family meals in the Italian culture: recipes passed down through generations, grown children coming to their parents for Sunday lunch every week. He tells us that the Italians really don’t like non-Italian food, or a meal that doesn’t follow the correct format – ‘where’s the pasta?’
But the intelligent reader, following all this, nodding in recognition, thinking that this Italian mistrust of foreigners and foreign food isn’t right, is still left with a longing for a delicious Italian meal – memories of wonderful Italian cooking arise unbidden….
Hooper also has a lot to say about religion in Italy: the heavy influence of the Catholic church for so many years, the importance of the Vatican being where it is, and the happy adaptation of most Italians to the bits of the faith that they are happy to go along with, and the bits they will happily ignore (rulings on contraception and divorce).
Ash Wednesday was yesterday, Lent has now begun, it’s quite cheering to think of the Italians enjoying their illicit patisserie.
Altogether The Italians is a really entertaining and informative read.
There was more about carnival, and more photos, in Tuesday's entry.
The photos – of carnevale in Venice - are all from Perry Photography and used with her kind permission: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.