Tuesday, February 13, 2018

My fucking food bag: Mantuan Carnival cakes

The rough translation of frictilia, I suppose, would be ‘fritters’. This is the term that ancient Romans used to describe strips of dough fried in lard, a popular treat during the yearly Saturnalia, or feast of Saturn, a direct precursor of the modern carnival. The sweet – which exists in many cultures – has survived in Italy until the present day, with small variations and under an almost bewildering number of regional names, including merveilles (‘marvels’) near the French border, bugie (‘lies’) in Piedmont, frappe in Rome, strufoli or cenci (‘rags) in Tuscany, crostoli in the North-East and from there into Croatia and as far as Poland. In most other regions they are chiacchiere, or chit-chats.

My grandparents lived near Mantua so for my family they were the lattughe, literally lettuce leaves. Nonna made them every Spring and it was one of my favourite sweets but it’s only recently that I tried to re-create them, and only this year that I finally got them exactly right. It’s not because they’re hard to make, on the contrary: but I wasn’t just trying to make any one of the many variants. Rather, the one from my childhood. The one I would recognise.

This is a very humble dish. it is not difficult nor expensive to make but it takes labour and time, as befits its origins. As I’ve said many times before, the cuisine of the Mantuan province is historically ‘of the Prince and the pauper’, and festivals in particular required that the same rituals and dishes be accessible by rich and poor alike. None more so, perhaps, than Carnival.

To make lattughe you need to prepare a dough that sits halfway between pasta and pastry: a mixture of eggs and flour enriched with relatively small amounts of butter and sugar and flavoured with lemon peel, Marsala wine and vanilla, which you will then need to roll very thin. That last aspect in particular is what sets the lattughe apart from other variants, along with the frying in beef dripping – another pauper’s ingredient that is still found in many dishes of this region, including bread.

On we go. These are the ingredients:
300 grams flour
3 eggs
30 grams of butter
50 grams of sugar
5 grams of baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla pod (or essence)
1 lemon peel
1 shot of Marsala wine or equivalent liquor
Beef dripping (or vegetable oil) as needed

Sift the baking powder and flour, mix with salt and sugar, form a well in the middle in which to break the eggs and add the butter, peel, vanilla and Marsala. Mix, then knead until the dough is hard and smooth. Mine ended up looking not unlike like a cauliflower.

Leave it in a bowl covered with a tea towel for half an hour or so.

As I made a double batch, I helped myself with a pasta machine to roll it, but you can use a regular pin, so long as you aim for pasta-like thickness. This is more or less what we’re looking for.

Cut the pasta into strips. The traditional shape is a rectangle of 10x5 cms in size, with two parallel incisions in the middle.

You now have the option of feeding one of the corners into the opposite slit, to make a sort of bow – it has no other function than to give some of the lattughe an interesting shape.

I did about half that way, the other half I left as rectangles.

To cook, heat up the oil or dripping in a saucepan or frying pan. It needs to be hot enough for the dough to cook instantly. Dunk a strip and count to 4 Mississippis (or, in this case, “Fiume Po”), then turn it over for a split second on the way to taking it out of the pan and into a dish or bowl which you previously lined with a paper towel. They should look something like this.

And taste something like this.

No wait that’s still how they look. But you know what I mean. Enjoy, and buon carnevale.