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Siena the Magnificent and the Sagra delle Fritelle:
the start of Spring in Tuscany
 
This is part of a series of stories on food and wine from Tuscany, Italy
by South Florida Gourmet editor
Simone Zarmati Diament
 
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by Simone Zarmati Diament
 
Cellai – Rignano sull’ Arno, Tuscany, Italy --On our way to our new home in Castello dei Bisticci - a rustic but comfortable farm house adjacent to what probably was a prosperous castello or castle surrounded by vineyards and olive groves - at the turn of one of the hairpin curves that characterize this part of Chianti, Tuscany,  we saw a huge sign outside Caffé Mingo in San Donato in Collina that said: Sagra delle Fritelle, and I translate the rest: from January to March, every Saturday and Sunday.
 

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I quickly looked up  Sagra in my little Larousse dictionary: it means Festival.  I had no trouble understanding Fritelle,  since the crowds outside the caffé were lining up to buy  dozens of beignets, hot off the frying pot, sprinkled with sugar.  Of course I took my place in the line and bought a bag full of the golden rice fritters, aromatic with orange rind, the recipe of which Mingo himself was reluctant to give me, but said was rice, cooked with water into a paste, mixed with milk, orange rind, a bit of sugar and eggs and deep fried.

In Tuscany there’s a Sagra, or a Festival, for just about everything, from lepre or hare to truffles, mushrooms, chestnuts, grapes, and spring fruit and vegetables, during which local restaurants prepare specialties of the season.  If it’s a local Sagra, you buy a ticket which gives you access to taste all the foods which you eat at a common table:  a good meal at a price you can’t beat and the4 experience of being a part of the "real" Toscana.

But back to Sagra delle Frittelle.   On our visit to Siena, a city of steep medieval city surrounding the Piazza del Campo,  whose rich buildings – from the 12th century to the Renaissance - were mercifully kept intact ironically thanks to the decline of the city from  the Black Death that in 1348, to the powerful Medici victory over the Republic of Siena, after a long siege 200 years later.  

dsc06898floorAfter visiting the magnificent Duomo, the Gothic-style  Cathedral built between 1136 and 1382, with inlaid marble floor with totally post-modern figures, black and white marble pillars, exquisite façade and incredible Piccolomini Library – a treasure of Medieval books and  frescoes by Pinturicchio (1509) depicting the life of Pope Pius II, it was time to eat.

Dazzled by images of exquisite perfection, we weren’t ready to settle for a Panini or a Pizza for lunch.  Luck, more than guided purpose, took us to the Ristorante Due Archi di Trasolini Domenico (Pian dei Mantellini 48, tel: +39-00761980523, 53100 Siena) where owner Domenico recommended an incredibly fresh fish and seafood grilliatta accompanied with oven-roasted potatoes and a half-liter of house Chianti.

In the afternoon, after lunch and the siesta, the town awakens, people stroll through the narrow alley with elegant stores and converge for aperitivo,  gelato or coffee with panforte, the specialty of the region which is a nougat-like dessert studded with roasted almond, halzel nuts or pistacchio,  to the shell-shaped 12th century Piazza del Campo flanked by elegant palazzi - which  is the theater of  the yearly  Palio of Siena, famous Medieval Festival with an exciting horse race.  

It is there, next to the Torre del Mangia - the bell tower finished in 1348 and named after the first bell ringer is the second highest in Italy – that a sign announced that this Sunday would be the last day of the Sagra delle Fritelle.   Inside, just like in the Middle Ages, bonneted women and men were busy  frying the little rice balls.  Frittelle di Riso, or rice fritters, are a winter tradition around Mardi Gras and around Florence, Tuscany,  especially popular on and after San Giuseppe, Saint Joseph's day, March 19.      

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Here is how I gather, after asking a few fritelle makers, how the fritelle should be prepared:

Ingredients: 

2 cups rice - cheap rice that gives off starch as it cooks
1 pint water
1 pint whole milk
grated zest of a small orange and a small lemon
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 oz unsalted butter
3 eggs, separated
1 tbsp. rum, cognac or vinsanto (optional)
1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Canola oil for frying
Confectioner's sugar

Preparation:

Cook the rice in the water and milk with sugar, lemon zest, and butter until it's pasty. Let the mixture cool, and stir in the three yolks. Stir in the rum or vinsanto (optional but yummier). Whip the whites and fold them in, then fold in the flour and the baking powder.

Heat oil in a fairly deep pot and fry a teaspoon at a time, removing the balls from the pot with a slotted spoon when they become golden. Drain and dust them with powder sugar, serve hot.

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