We discovered the delights of the Roman Carnevale season in January 2012. We’d had our first Christmas in Rome, then a few weeks afterwards we saw some unfamiliar new items appearing in our local pasticcerie and bakeries. These were frappe and castagnole, with the first being a kind of sweet pasta and the second a kind of sweet dough ball.
These treats are part of the celebrations of Carnevale, the Catholic festive season that takes place immediately before the decidedly more restrained period of Lent. Although Lent’s timing is defined by Easter, which is itself a moveable feast dated in relation to the equinox and moon phases, Italian Carnevale is celebrated during February, or for the four weeks before Lent. Though frappe and castagnole may first appear in mid-January.
During Carnevale, children dress up and throw around confetti (cordiandoli in Italian). It was lovely to see Piazza Testaccio, until 2012 site of the neighbourhood market, finally re-opened with the wonderful 1927 Fontana delle Amfore (Fountain of Amphorae) at the centre, and children in their Frozen (naturally) and Batman outfits playing, and cheerily threatening passers-by with handfuls of coriandoli. I love this method of keeping winter at bay: seasonal speciality foods, lively ceremonial activities in public spaces.
The fountain was originally designed for here, then it was moved to the edge of Testaccio, at the end of Ponte Subliccio, in the 1930s. So it’s a kind of homecoming . Designed by architect Pietro Lombardi it’s very much in a modernist-fascist style, though two of its four bas-relief shields are blank, presumably purged of fascist iconography. If you spend time in Rome, it’s a fun game to try and spot the other eight district fountains designed by Lombardi.
Talking of amphorae, on this visit we were also lucky enough to be able to go up Monte Testaccio itself. This little hill, also known as Monte dei Cocci (with coccio meaning earthenware, or shard), which rises to 35m and looms over the neighbourhood, is actually a garbage dump. For around two hundred years, used olive oil amphorae, broken into shards, were neatly stacked here by the ancient Romans. There are more than 50 million amphorae, it’s estimated.
Monte Testaccio used to be a public park, but was already closed off when we arrived in 2011, deemed unsafe. So I was really excited to get a chance to finally go up there. It was fascinating to be walking on these artifacts, to be able to pick up handles used, almost two millennia ago, to lift the amphorae full of olive oil imported from the Roman empire and offloaded at Testaccio’s quay. So a big thanks to local sociologist Iren Ranaldi for the tour, and Rachel for sorting it out for us.
For the two Carnevali we lived in Rome, I obsessed over frappe and castagnole slightly, eating as many as I could from different places. Last year, our first Carnevale back in England, I made my first frappe. They worked surprisingly well, and you can find the recipe here.
We’ve just had another visit to Rome, and although I had a stinking cold it didn’t stop me sampling more frappe and castagnole. We stayed in Rachel’s flat in Testaccio, which is above one bakery, Panificio Passi, so that was the best place to start. Along with the frappe they had several types of castagnole: classic, plain; rum-flavoured; alchermes-flavoured; baked; filled with custard; filled with ricotta, all sold by weight.
We had classic and custard, and while they were very good, the ones we had from another bakery a few blocks away were better. This was Pasticceria di Zio, whose classic castagnole were larger, with a slight crunch to their crust.
I’ve not made castagnole, but as I’m a big fan, and we can’t just go to our local bakery or pastry shop in smalltown England and stock up, I’m going to have a go at a recipe. That should be my next post, as I really ought to do it during Carnevale, or at least the month of February. Even if Lent starts next Wednesday, 18 February.