Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Carnival Donuts in Innsbruck and Venice

A few weeks back I happened to be in Innsbruck just as the Carnival celebrations were coming to a close. The holiday is decidedly more low key here than in Rio or New Orleans and has none of the pomp of Venice. In the Tyrol, which claims Innsbruck as its capital, fat Tuesday, or Fasching, is celebrated with a parade of the good burgers hidden behind grotesque masks straight from a Hansel and Gretel nightmare. Kids opt for princesses or Power Rangers, or whatever Disney dishes out that year.

Faschingskrapfen at Café Diglas in Vienna

But mostly, the imminent arrival of Lent is marked by an Alpine-sized avalanche of Krapfen. Krapfen filled with jam and cream. Chocolate Krapfen and vanilla Krapfen but also the eggy, boozy Eierlikor Krapfen filled with an egg-based liqueur. Of course Venetians would hardly be surprised that Carnival should be a time to gorge on fried dough balls, the city has its fair share of pre-Lenten fritters and for much the same reason as Catholic Austria. Doughnuts are an indulgence that used to depend on animal fat: clarified butter if you were really hoity toity but lard for most of the rest of us. Great cauldrons of simmering lard, something that would be strictly forbidden for the next forty days and forty nights. Thus the donut orgy before the fast.

Of course donuts are hardly limited to the catholic world or even Europe as any fan of Homer Simpson is well aware. They are certainly as old as the ancient Greeks and any civilization that has figured out how to fry food has its version. In India there is the dayglow tangle of dough called jalebi, Arabs have Luqmat al qadi, a ping-pong- size fritter that translates as “judge’s morsel,” Spanish speakers have churros, the Dutch have olie bollen which, according to some historians later turned into American donuts. And, of course we mustn’t forget zeppole served on St. Joseph’s Day, right in the middle of Lent, proving once again that Martin Luther was right about the Italians.

Roughly speaking there are historically two ways of making fritters. In the case of churros and at least a some of the fritters that go by the name bignè in Italy (from the French beignet). The dough is made by mixing flour into hot water. You often find egg in there too. There’s recipe for this sort of thing in the ancient Roman cookbook of Apicius. Scappi, the renaissance maestro, calls a much enriched version of the same thing frittelle alla Veneziana (sic). The other kind of fritters, the ones that are called fritelle alla veneziana today are essentially made with a bread dough, leavened with yeast. And this is the category to which the much-beloved Krapfen belongs.

The origin of a fritter called Krapfen probably goes back to the middle ages in Central Europe. A recipe from 1531 has you mix in honey and wine as well as the usual eggs, flour and yeast. These early recipes seem to have been unfilled. Instead there is some evidence that they were dipped in honey or possibly some sort of fruit butter (apples and plums were traditionally boiled down in Central Europe without the addition of expensive sugar). In this they may have resembled honey-dipped Levantive fritters or, for that matter, the fritelle di Chanukà of Venice’s ghetto.

Filled Krapfen seem to have come along only when they moved to the big city. In Vienna these filled donuts came to be called Faschingskrapfen, because of their association with Carnival (Fasching) though Krapfen were by no means limited to the holiday. The Florentine Gazetta Universale reported that in Vienna April 7 1790, Leopold II distributed 300 pounds of prosciutto, 3000 pounds of roast veal, 3000 bread rolls 2000 Krapfen after annual ceremony when vows allegiance were exchanged between him and the representatives of his domains. Rather skimpy if you ask me but the Hapsburgs were known to be skinflints. And Krapfen weren’t cheap. They ran one to two Kreutzers unfilled and double that with a filling. That would have cost an ordinary workman one or two hours of wages. The really fancy ones were even more. You could tell good quality Krapfen by the tell-tale ring around the edge. It told you the doughnut was light enough not to sink in the cooking fat. She as pretty as a Krapfen was high compliment. And when a gentleman was to intimate with a lady that they would share a Krapfen you knew that a proposal had better be in the works.

Krapfen at Pasticceria Tonolo

Yet just when the Krapfen craze reached Venice isn’t recorded. Or at least I haven’t been able to track it down. Presumably it came with the Austrian occupation after 1797 though I am skeptical that the locals would have leapt on the invaders’ fritter all that quickly. But sooner or later the German donut’s very obvious appeal overcame any nationalist reservations and the locals adopted it as their own. I am tempted to ascribe Florence’s bomboloni to the Austrians as well but here too I have no proof other than the very obvious similarity of the recipe.

Who could argue with the appeal a sweet snack endorsed by both Homer Simpson and John F. Kennedy. Well, OK, in both cases we’re dealing with fiction. A cartoon character in one case and an urban legend that when Kennedy stood in front of the Brandenburg gate and declared himself a “Berliner,” he made a grammatical faux pas and inadvertently declared himself a jelly donut. Well it turns out his grammar was actually just fine. A pity, it would have been a much more universal statement of the unity of humankind, if you ask me.