Buon Natale - Christmas Italian Style
No two Italians are likely to give you the same recipe for an outstanding Christmas culinary experience. Not only that, they’ll argue for hours about the relative merits of their choices and why they are far superior to anybody else’s. Why are they so passionate? Well, they feel passionate about every aspect of food, every day of the year. But Christmas? Well, it is the most intimate time of all, when the family comes together, crowds into the kitchen and shares out the tasks needed to bring together a feast worthy of celebrating the most important date in the Christian calendar. It’s as much about childhood memories as the here and now. Of course, it’s unlikely the whole process will be completed without the odd technical dispute – everyone is an expert, although most family members tend to defer to the omnipresent nonna, or grandmother - but the proof of the pudding, and indeed everything else, is very definitely in the eating.
Christmas Eve in ItalyWhile northern Europeans tend to view Christmas Day as the main event, Italians put an equal emphasis on Christmas Eve when fish and pasta are the order of the day. So think in terms of fried calamari (squid), ditali pasta in a fish broth, or for the more skilled, some ravioli stuffed with crab or lobster meat. Crushed chilli flakes incorporated into linguine with vongole (baby clams) will offer a livelier primo course for the tastebuds of the assembled throng. Follow this with a whole baked fish such as sea bass, accompanied by any combination of vegetables that you wish: perhaps sliced potatoes, red peppers and artichokes. Cook these in the same roasting pan as the fish with a generous coating of olive oil and aromatics such as lemon juice and rosemary sprigs. Don’t forget a simple palate cleansing salad before unveiling the dessert. This may be a home-made torta della nonna, or a slice of panettone or panforte. It may, indeed, be all three, especially if the guests have done the decent thing and supplied the cake as a Yuletide “grazie” for the hospitality.
Antipasto CombinationsOn no account worry about leaving everyone too stuffed to even think about beginning the whole cooking process once again with the dawn of Christmas Day. After all the energy expended in cooking the feast and contributing to the animated conversation, the household will wake up with an appetite for more. So what about the big day? The meal could begin with any antipasto combinations of cured meats and cheeses that you fancy. To follow, how about some ribbon pasta such as fettuccine, coated in the tomato sauce in which a meat loaf has bathed for an hour or more. And then? Well, what better than a slice or two of the aforementioned meat loaf? For secondo, perhaps stuffed guinea fowl or chicken. All this can be supplemented by a salad, then more panettone, perhaps dressed with ice cream or honey, and a cheese course.
You will know you have achieved the authentic Italian Christmas experience when the air is full of conversation and laughter, and even the odd tear of joy is being shed. Of course, whatever combination of dishes you have constructed, there will be the inevitable basin full of dirty pots and pans to be negotiated. But perhaps not just yet, eh? They can wait while you sit back and savour that well earned grappa or Vin Santo, and watch the festive fun unfold around you.