We go behind the scenes of an Italian Christmas with Mario Matassa as he explores the rich and austere festive food and traditions of Italy…
To describe a celebration of food as both ‘rich and austere’ might seem something of a contradiction.
Yet I can think of no more apt a description of this, the most important event in the Italian culinary calendar.
Italians do Christmas in a big way with an iconic menu that is as rich in its diversity as it is in flavour.
Yet, at the same time, there is an austerity to Christmas celebrations in Italy, which stem from a body of traditions, customs and symbolism that makes an Italian Christmas quite different from any that I have experienced elsewhere.
To understand this seeming contradiction we must first ditch much of the preconceived mental luggage that comes with our own Christmas and begin to think of Christmas as Italians do.
This is easier said than done, because no matter where you come from, a heightened sense of nostalgia is part and parcel of the Christmas experience.
I found this out a few years ago when, suffering from a lingering dose of seasonal nostalgia, I got it into my head to cook a traditional Christmas Day roast lunch.
After all, what better remedy for the winter blues than an over-sized turkey stuffed beyond recognition surrounded by a sea of roasted parsnips, potatoes and sprouts?
There’s no comfort food like traditional Christmas fare, with the added bonus that you get to relive the whole Christmas experience for days after in the form of leftovers.
Back down to reality
But, as it is with the best-laid plans, it took nothing more than a trip to the supermarket to bring me down to reality.
At first glance, a battery of capons occupied the fridge where the turkeys should have held pride of place.
Parsnips, I was informed after a bout of charades at the veg counter, are something Italians feed to cows; double cream is notable for its absence, and as for cranberries, well, Italy still hasn’t got around to inventing a word for them.
So, to cut a long story short, roast turkey with all the trimmings was out and Italian fare was in! In the UK the excitement and anticipation that precede Christmas tend to be focused firmly on Christmas Day itself. In Italy they tend to look at the bigger picture.
In fact, in Italy, the festivities are better likened to a string of mini feasts, beginning on 6 December, the birthday of San Nicola, the original Saint Nicholas, and ending long after most other nations are struggling to remember – let alone keep – their new year’s resolutions on 6 January, Epiphany.
DID YOU KNOW? The traditional dish on New Year’s Eve throughout the country is zampone con lenticchie (pig’s trotter and lentils). The dish symbolises wealth and abundance for the year to come. It has to be served at the stroke of midnight, so it is no surprise to find that it is often served in Italy after the main New Year’s Eve supper has finished as a little something extra!
The big events, all equal in the weight of importance attached, include the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December (a sort of warm up for Christmas Day), the feast day for Santa Lucia, who brings presents for the children on 13 December, La Vigilia (on Christmas Eve), Christmas Day – of course – New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and, finally, Epiphany on 6 January.
However you look at it, that’s a lot of Christmas feasting, and I can tell you now, it’s quite possible you’ll probably never see sight or sound of a turkey from start to finish. Every feast day comes with its own menu, which differs from one region – province, even – to the next.
So what you find on your plate is very much a question of geography, and you’d need a road map of encyclopaedic proportions to capture all the traditions that are still eagerly embraced by Italians over the duration of the festive season.
The two generalisations that are probably safe to make are: first, wherever you happen to be in the country, each meal – each dish, even – will be steeped in tradition and religious symbolism; and second: none of the meals are quick affairs!
The Christmas Eve Menu
To say that you’d need a roadmap to grasp the full glory of Italian Christmas festive food icons is no exaggeration. This is because Italians, especially when it comes to festive dining, never settle for one dish.
At Christmas, a meal is made to last, and at its most basic will always include antipasto, primo, secondo and dolce (appetiser, first course, second and dessert), followed most likely by panettone, biscuits, torrone (nougat), liqueur and coffee. That’s the basic set-up.
In reality, most dinners will include something in the region of eight to 13 courses.
There is usually more than one pasta dish served. And two or more meat dishes will often be served too, such as a bollito (boiled meats) followed by an arrosto (roast).
As I said, symbolism and religion often plays a big part in the meal.
For La Vigilia on Christmas Eve, for example, there are variations on the meal, which can include seven courses for the seven sacraments, nine for the Trinity multiplied by itself (probably because three courses seems a fairly lame excuse for a festive dinner), 12 for the disciples, or 13, if you add Jesus.
On Christmas Eve, fish dominates the menu throughout the country, a tradition that dates back to the time when the Church’s dietary laws prohibited the eating of meat.
Eel (capitone) was once the most popular dish of choice, served either spit roasted, fried, grilled, in a stew, pickled, or a combination of all of the above.
Almost certain to be present is baccalà (salt cod) cooked in any one of a thousand variations.
Again, how the fish is cooked depends upon where in Italy you live.
Whatever way you look at it though, and however it happens to be cooked, working your way through 13 courses on Christmas Eve is no mean feat, especially when at the back of your mind you are thinking that tomorrow you will have to start all over again.
That’s assuming your host decides to stop at 13 – it is, after all, Christmas Day!
At times, a Christmas spent in Italy can seem like a two-week marathon of continuous feasting.
Indeed, if the Christmas Eve banquet isn’t enough, the ingenious Italians have invented additional excuses to continue eating. The post-dinner custom is a walk into town for Midnight Mass.
Upon their return, no longer restricted by dietary law, as it is now officially Christmas Day, a glass (or two) of vin brulé (to ward off the cold) and a plate of prete (literally ‘priest’, a boiled and baked ham) satisfies even the most hearty of appetites – well, at least until the next morning!
DID YOU KNOW? The Three Wise Men, upon losing their way to Bethlehem, asked an old lady to guide them. La Befana refused. When she returned home, overwhelmed with guilt, she prepared a basket of treats and set off to find them. She could not. She called at every door, leaving treats for all the children in the hope that one of them would be Jesus. Today Italian children still traditionally receive sweets and home-baked treats on the eve of 6 January.
Christmas Day Lunch
In a country of regional culinary dialects, to say there is no set national formula for the quintessential Christmas lunch should hardly come as a surprise.
Preferences abound and those preferences are geographically specific.
There are a few generalisations.
Naturally, everyone eats a dish or two of pasta. In parts of the south, lasagne remains a popular choice, whereas in Emilia-Romagna, and throughout much of northern Italy, the pasta course of choice is some variation of stuffed pasta swimming in a golden capon broth.
As Christmas approaches, every household in the region will set aside an entire day to make the pasta for Christmas. It’s usually a family event and it’s no exaggeration to say that families will make a thousand or more ravioli to see them through the season.
One of my neighbours bought a freezer specifically for the purpose – fortunately, stuffed pasta freezes very well, taking all the stress out of cooking on the day.
Here in the local town of Castell’ Arquato the pasta of choice is agnolini.
Yet if you travel 20 minutes down the road into one of the neighbouring provinces, you’ll most likely be served cappelletti. The capon used to make the broth always makes an encore as the first of the meat courses, the bollito.
This is commonly followed by a mixed roast that can include stuffed roast guinea fowl, duck and beef.
In this way, I suppose, all your important meat groups are covered and everyone will get to eat a piece of their favourite meat! Of course, there are a few specialities that, over the years, have gained something of a national following.
Mostarda – mixed fruit preserved in a spicy honey mustard mix – is most commonly associated with Cremona, but is today popular throughout the peninsula.
In the weeks leading to Christmas, supermarkets set up large, colourful displays with bathtub-sized containers of different varieties of mostarda.
The preserved fruits are used as filling for any number of pastries, which are prepared at home well in advance of Christmas Day.
DID YOU KNOW? Many legends lay claim to panettone. One of these dates back to the 15th century, when a Milanese nobleman, Ughetto degli Atellani, fell in love with the daughter of a poor baker. To win her love, the nobleman disguised himself as a baker and invented this rich bread. After tasting it, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza, gave his permission for the marriage, and the new cake-like bread gained popularity. Another, simpler explanation finds a medieval reference to a pan dei ton, ‘luxury bread’ in the Milanese dialect.
The pungent preserve is also used to spice up the ubiquitous bollito, always served after the last pasta course. Arguably, the most iconic of Italian Christmas foods is the famed panettone.
Originally from Milan, like mostarda, panettone has assumed a national – even international – status.
A buttery yeasted bread with candied peel and raisins, you’ll almost certainly find a panettone or two in every Italian household over the Christmas season.
It’s not, however, the only speciality Christmas bread on offer. Far from it, in fact – you could say that practically every town in Italy has its own take on the theme.
Other notable variations on the panettone include the pandoro of Verona, the pandolce of Genoa, the Roman pangiallo (or ‘golden bread’), panforte from Siena, in addition to the Tuscan panpepato, and, of course, Ferrara’s pampepato.
Strictly speaking, none of the aforementioned are breads but rather sweetened and spiced pastries. The incorporation of copious amounts of nuts, dried fruits, honey and spices is intended to symbolise abundance and, in the season of scarcity, their round shape is intended to reflect an image of the sun.
A Christmas Apart
When I first came to Italy it struck me as odd how so many homes that I visited over the Christmas season had no evidence of a Christmas tree. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.
Yet every single house I visited did have a presepio (a nativity scene). And you won’t see bowl upon bowl brimming with chocolate in an Italian household, nor will you see a mountain of presents under the tree (even if there is one).
Although it is true that the tide has shifted somewhat in recent years, Christmas in Italy still doesn’t display much of the commercialism that characterises Christmas elsewhere. It’s not a custom for adults to exchange gifts here – that’s a privilege reserved for children.
Also, in the absence of the Christmas tree, a nativity scene takes pride of place, and the bowls of chocolates instead overflow with nuts and fruit or homemade pastries.
While to foreign eyes this might seem austere, in Italy it is regarded a symbol of seasonal abundance.
Christmas banquets here are lavish affairs designed so that extended families can congregate and spend several hours in one another’s company.
They are meals made to endure. More than what is on the plate, the Italian Christmas is about ritual and tradition.
In past years, for example, my family, wherever they happened to be at the time, would converge at the family home in the Alps.
On Christmas Eve, just before leaving for Midnight Mass, the largest log from the woodpile (cut especially for the day) was brought in and placed – often still covered in a dusting of snow – on the fire.
The children would gather around the hearth, to hear how the massive trunk ensured the fire stayed lit throughout the night to keep baby Jesus warm.
It’s a family custom that was passed from one generation to the next – a symbolic gesture. A couple of hours later, when we return, the fire is roaring.
A bottle of spumante is taken from the fridge and the first in a long line of Christmas panettoni is opened and sliced.
Both austere and rich at the same time, this is the essence of an Italian Christmas and these are the rituals that will endure.
Images by Mario Matassa unless otherwise stated.