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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Il Carnevale di Venezia

     One of the things in my bucket list pertaining to travel is to attend the Venetian Carnival.  Ever since I read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of Read Death I’ve been fascinated with images of a grand masquerade ball, although not necessarily ending as gruesomely as Poe’s story.

"And thus was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death..."

     The Venetian Carnival, or Carnevale di Venezia, started on 28th January and will run till 12th February, 2013.  For some it may be perceived as an ode to the grotesque, for others – like me – is yet another occasion to fully indulge the senses.  The feast dates as far back as 1162, when Venice flourished as an independent city.  The Carnival was very famous during the Renaissance but its spirit dwindled in the 18th century.  Then in the 1980’s Venetians started celebrating it again.

The opening night of the colourful 2013 festivities.

    The most distinguishing aspect of the Carnival is the attendants’ highly ornamented costumes and the masques.  In the olden days, they were manufactured by highly skilled craftsmen called mascherari, who enjoyed a position of privilege in the Venetian society.

Masques at Disney World's Epcot.

The masques were worn throughout the holiday season, well into January and February, right up to Ash Wednesday, when the season of Lent – and the end of debauchery – was to end.  Masques were also particularly welcome during the plague that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages, with doctors specifically wearing a white one with a hook-like beak, appropriately named medico della peste – or “Plague Doctor”. 

      My dream of visiting Venice is of attending a ball in costume with a floor-length cape, a beautiful masque, and being photographed at dusk running through one of its bridges across the canals.  In the meantime, I’ve decided to celebrate at home by making Sanguinaccio, a typical sweet of these festivities. 

     The original Sanguinaccio included, as its name disturbingly implies, blood.  It was the blood of a freshly killed pig.  The Neapolitans, not the Venetians, were its creators.  They used to make it for the Lent festivities and disguised the blood with chocolate because, let’s be honest, how else would you dare someone to drink the warm blood of a pig?  Yet as disturbing as it sounds, the fame of the pudding spread quickly throughout Italy.

     In any case, mine did not include the blood – although for the future it would prove an interesting experiment (after all, I do love morcilla).  I substituted it instead with milk and a touch of liquore Strega Alberti, a sweet aromatic elixir made with saffron and a bouquet of herbs which pairs great with chocolate.  It can also be drunk on its own as a digestif after meals.

     The recipe I found was in Italian and not a good one.  Hence I ended up with a Sanguinaccio that look more like a cold soup than a pudding.  Still, it was creamy and tasted gloriously, but a little goes a long way (and that’s without the blood!).  Perfected however, the recipe should be as follows:


  • ½ liter of whole milk (but if you are really adventurous you may want to try ¼ liter of whole milk and ¼ liter fresh pig’s blood.  Ouch!)
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1.5 oz. cornstarch
  • 3.5 oz. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2.8 oz. semi-sweet (60%) chocolate, melted
  • 1 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped
  • 1 pinch of cinnamon (Vietnamese style)
  • 3 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 3 Tbsp. liquore Strega Alberti
  • A few candied orange peels, chopped


Melt the semi-sweet chocolate on a bain Marie.  Add the milk (or milk and blood!), cornstarch, sugar, butter, cocoa, vanilla seeds and cinnamon and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens – about 15 to 18 minutes.  

Place in small pots and chill in the fridge until ready to serve.

My first attempt at Sanguinaccio.  Great flavor, not great texture.

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