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Today is Martedì grasso: Mardi Gras, the last of the seven days of Carnival.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The Christian custom of “keeping” Lent,  forty days of abstinence from meat and eggs before Easter, has fallen largely into disuse even among churchgoers. The etyology of Carnival (Carnevale in Italian) is to remove (i.e not eat) meat. During the days of Carnival, one ate the fatty foods that were to be prohibited during Lent. This culminated in the “fattiest” day of all, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday).

Italy’s most famous Carnival is of course the one held in Venice, full of elaborate marks and intrigue. Its origins may go back to 1162, when there were celebrations in Piazza San Marco to celebrate the Venetian Republic’s victory over the belligerent Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrich von Treven. After being captured, Ulrich was eventually released in exchange for payment of an yearly levy to Venice of a bull, twelve pigs and 300 loaves of bread. In an important element of the Venetian carnival for centuries, the animals were slaughtered in a public ceremony to commemorate the victory.

Carnival sponge cake

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina is a fluffy, delicately scented Mardi Gras cake from Florence. It is one of the dairy-free desserts that we make during our cooking courses in Italy. In the past, this cake was made with lard, the fat that was in popular use at the time. The one that we make on our cooking courses is made with sunflower oil. It is delicious filled with whipped cream, or just by itself! Happy Martedì Grasso!

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