Chiacchiere: What’s all the chatter about?

written by Jenny Galati

Many holidays in Italy are usually accompanied by culinary tradition, and Carnevale is no exception. During this mardi gras period in the peninsula, delightful sweet, crispy strips known as chiacchiere make their appearance in many pasticcerie and home bakeries. They are fried treats that go by many names and shapes throughout the Belpaese.

Their moniker translates to “chit-chat,” perfectly suited to the delicious crunch they make when you bite into them, almost sounding like chatter. Their origin dates back 2000 years to ancient Rome, where during the Liberalia end-of-winter celebrations, fritters known as frictilia were made.

These sweets fried in lard were indulgences meant to be enjoyed as part of the festivities honouring the gods and collective rituals of pleasure seeking. With the advent of Catholicism, the pagan festival was transformed into what we now know as Carnevale. While this holiday is no longer dedicated to honouring the gods of fertility and wine, it is still all about excess.

It is an opportunity to party before Lent when the rigors of 40 days of fasting and sacrifice begin. The definitive word for this period is decadence, which is why many of the foods prepared during the Carnival season are sweets and especially fritters, the most famous of these being chiacchiere. They go by many an alias: frappe (tassels) in Lazio, cenci (rags) in Tuscany, bugie (lies) in Piedmont, sfrappe in Le Marche, sfrappole in Emilia, nastri (ribbons), lattughe (lettuce), guanti (gloves), and many others. Similar crispy delights can be found in other European countries as well as in North America where they are known as “ribbon cookies” or “angel wings.” In some countries, it is tradition for husbands to give these cookies to their wives on Friday the 13th to avoid bad luck, in addition to enjoying them on Fat Tuesday.

But no matter their descriptor, their recipe remains fairly constant. Northern Italian versions tend to use butter and spirits like grappa for the dough, while in the South they use olive oil and sambuca. They take on many shapes – squares, sheets, strips, diamonds, knots and twisted ribbon. The dough is fried and dusted with powdered sugar, and what makes this timeless pastry truly heavenly and addictive is their light and crisp texture, which pairs beautifully with a coffee, dessert wine or bicchierino of liqueur.