Inspired by Tony's inherited egg nog recipe, this week we've been looking into Italian traditions surrounding the Christmas holidays and salivating over food and drink recipes. In fact, the very essence of Christmas Day in Italy is family, food and talking, all of which occurs in abundance; whole families come together to celebrate with traditions that have been handed down for generations and to start new ones of their own.
Light and Decorations
Celebrating Christmas with festive lights and decorations is something that the whole of Italy embraces. Often beginning around December 8th on the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, decorations tend to follow religious tradition and focus on the nativity scene. Almost every church will partake with their own nativity and they are often found outdoors in piazzas as well. Traditionally bonfires are usually held on Christmas Eve in a town's main square, especially in mountain areas.
Torino, in north Italy, is one of the most impressive places for lights. Over twenty kilometres of streets and squares are illuminated from late November to early January. In Verona, an illuminated arch with a huge star points to the Christmas market.
Most Italians open their presents on Christmas Day morning or after lunch, although some with stoic patience wait until the Epiphany on January 6th. Traditionally, children receive a long, colourful stocking (la calza) filled to the brim with sweets if they have been good; but if they have been bad then Christmas morning will reveal a stocking full of 'coal' (black sugar). According to tradition, it's not Santa Claus who delivers gifts to expectant children across the world but rather La Befana - a kind witch. It is thought that she followed the three wise men but got lost and has been wandering ever since, handing out presents to children on Ephinany eve.
Food and Drink
Depending on the region and religious beliefs, the Christmas season commences at different times but December 24th and 25th are the most important days and they encompass a two-day feast. According to the Italian Catholic tradition, the Christmas Eve meal consists almost entirely of fish, with plentiful courses sometimes amassing to six or seven different fish dishes. Antipasto seafood salad, fettuccine with smoked salmon, dried and salted cod, fried eel with peas and polenta or a stuffed trout are often amongst the evening's offerings.
Christmas Day lunch is an orgiastic symphony of food and talking. A stuffed pasta such as tortellini or cappelletti or crostini with liver pate often begins the day's eating. The next course of a stuffed goose, pig's foot stuffed with spiced mince meat, or il cotechino - a sausage made from pig's intestines are particularly popular in northern Italy although in southern Italy the seafood bonanza continues. An abundance of side dishes, such as artichokes cooked in white wine, or a gratin of vegetables roasted in the oven are also served up.
The sweet side of things are equally important to the Christmas meal. Many of the traditional recipes originated in convents, where the nuns made special types of sweets to mark major religious holidays and offered them to eminent and noble families from which their mother superiors came. Most Christmas sweets contain nuts and almonds as, according to peasant folklore, eating nuts aids the fertility of the land and those who dwell upon it. As such, post-Christmas lunch sweet-treats will include nougat, pandoro - a light, golden cake and panforte, a gingerbread with hazelnuts, honey and almonds.
The most traditional Christmas cake is the Milanese panettone. Legend has it that the cake was first baked in the sixteenth century, when a baker named Antonio fell in love with a princess and baked a golden, buttery egg bread to win her heart. Over the years the name of the bread evolved into panettone and in the nineteenth century, with the unification of Italy, the bread was embellished with candied red cherries and green citron as a patriotic gesture. Delicious.