Gillian Riley, the author of The Oxford Companion to Italian Food(TOCTIF) is a food historian and former typographer. In TOCTIF Riley has created an A-Z guide to one of the world’s best-loved cuisines (and this blogger’s personal favorite!) Her book covers all aspects of history and culture of Italian gastronomy, from dishes, ingredients, and delicacies to cooking methods and implements, and regional specialties. In the post below Riley writes about the joys of embracing an Italian Christmas, even if you add only one dish to your family traditions.
Carol Field, in her entry in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food describes how a reverence for tradition and robust enjoyment of copious feasting make for two days of celebratory Christmas meals in a month rich in festive occasions. There are so many regional Italian customs and recipes that it would be rash to attempt a typical Italian Christmas menu, but we can plunder Carol’s contribution for ideas to mitigate or enhance the sometimes tyrannical conventions of a British or North American Christmas. Protestant angst and last minute panics about presents and provisions can make Christmas Eve a time of woe and recrimination, while in Catholic countries the Lean (meat free), penitential Christmas Eve supper and religious observances associated with it can create a calm prelude to the pagan inspired gluttony to come. This lean meal will be copious but not rich, and include fish, usually eel or salt cod, plain flour and water pasta with a pungent sauce of anchovies and tomatoes, and many inventive vegetable dishes, the breads plain and simple, flour, water and yeast.
Dishes and courses, many of them prepared in advance to enjoy on returning home from midnight mass, create a sumptuous vegetarian feast. The eel and pie shops of cockney London are besieged just before Christmas by serious Italians choosing and supervising the slaughter of live eels for traditional recipes like the one from Milan in which the richness of the pieces of eel, (luscious fat ones from the Po delta) sautéed with sage in olive oil, and then simmered with dry white wine and tomatoes is mitigated by a final wallow with some freshly cooked borlotti beans. Ada Boni has a Roman version in which ciriole, the young little eels from the Tiber are fried with garlic in olive oil, then after a glass of dry white wine has evaporated, finished with tomatoes and some of the plump and tasty Roman peas.
The rich meaty dishes of Christmas Day vary from one region to another, but the stuffed pasta of Emilia swimming in brodo is a wonderful example of luxurious and complicated recipes made from small amounts of good things, saved up for all year, and enjoyed only on special occasions, though now accessible all the time. The ‘meat’ menu of Christmas allows lavish use of the excluded butter and eggs, giving a voluptuous combination of richness and lightness to panettone, a specialty of Milan, now available everywhere. This complex yeasted bread, made with eggs and butter, at once ethereal and yet offering a good bite, is studded with dried and candied fruit and perfumed with vanilla. Treat yourself to the best available to avoid synthetic flavorings. Panettone and panforte will give your celebrations an Italian accent and are a lovely substitute for the often inappropriately ponderous Christmas puddings, mince pies, and heavy fruit cakes of the English tradition. The panforte is a dense but not rich mass of dried fruit, nuts and spices, honey or sugar, now associated with Siena, but in the past made all over Italy. A small piece satisfies the need for something sweet at the end of a meal, without the added burden of brandy butter, custard or cream.
Now is the time to feast the mind whilst giving the digestive tract a well-earned rest. Enjoy!