“So, what do you eat in Italy over Christmas?” This is a question we get asked a lot when travelling or upon meeting international travellers visiting Italy. Most tourists, of course, have heard of some of our most famous Christmas recipes – usually Panettone and Pandoro, which are not the same thing, whatever Jamie Oliver might say. What many Italian food enthusiasts don’t realise is that it is quite hard to pin down a “typically Italian” Christmas menu, because as we know, Italy has a rich and diverse culinary tradition, varying wildly from region to region. Christmas recipes from Naples would probably taste entirely alien to someone who was born and raised in Trentino Alto Adige and vice-versa – even though it is not uncommon to create original mixes of local traditions, as family members with different backgrounds reunite for Christmas. To give you a comprehensive taste of Italian Christmas, we have composed a menu for you, with each course taken from a different regional tradition. If you are travelling to Italy over Christmas, however, we recommend you sample the local recipe and immerse yourself in the culinary traditions of the regions you will be visiting.
Christmas recipes and Christmas meals: different Italian traditions
You may be under the impression that Italy, being a Country with a strong Catholic tradition, might have a more or less uniform way of celebrating Christmas. You would be wrong, of course, as most local traditions are more ancient than the Country itself and the legacy of a time when popular beliefs coexisted almost on the same level as codified religion, and they have survived and evolved through the centuries. One of the most commented on – and joked about – distinctions between northern and southern Italy has to do with decorations rather than food: while Christmas trees are more popular in the North, the South has a solid tradition of Nativity scenes, so that one can be found in almost every household. Different importance is also attributed to the two main Christmas meals. While a sumptuous dinner on Christmas Eve is considered essential in the southern and central regions, the North favours a rich family lunch on Christmas Day. One of the most puzzling aspects of the Italian Christmas culinary tradition is the fact that a Christmas Eve dinner should be “lean”, which of course means that it will be exactly as rich as the Christmas lunch, but meat-free and mostly fish-based.
Hors d’oeuvre – Tuscany: liver pate croutons
Croutons in general are a popular appetized on Italian Christmas tables, but the Tuscan tradition stands out for its chicken-liver pate croutons, with veal spleen sometimes added to the original recipe. As far as Christmas recipes go, this is one of the least exported, as liver and entrails in general are not an easy choice of menu and not always guaranteed to meet everyone’s taste. They do however have a place in the culinary traditions of Tuscany, where most of the recipes that are now considered to be sophisticated delicacies originated from the rural areas, where farmers had to make do with less than prime cuts of meat and what was mostly thought of as offal. That’s how this beautiful region evolved a prized traditional of complex dishes made of often simple but unusual ingredients such as liver or cockscomb.
First course – Emilia Romagna: tortellini in brodo
This delicious first course, whose original recipe originated in Emilia Romagna, has found its way on many an Italian Christmas table, in a number of different versions. The original and probably the most mouth-watering recipe is based on fresh tortellini, filled with meat (usually chicken), served in chicken broth and seasoned at will with generous quantities of parmesan cheese. This being a meat-based dish, many households will consider it unsuitable for a Christmas Eve dinner and serve it for lunch on Christmas Day. Even the vegetarian version, popular in Lombardy and which has the original tortellini filling made of pumpkin rather than meat, is not vegetarian enough, as the broth still tends to be meat-based. In some regions, just to add an extra puzzling element to the global picture, in some regions poultry, particularly capon, is considered as lean as fish and therefore served on Christmas Eve. Tortellini, much like pesto and other regional specialities, are the kind of food whose recipe varies from town to town and sometimes from family tradition to family tradition. Each recipe, of course, will have devout enthusiasts ready to swear on their preferred version being the original one, the most ancient and the only acceptable way of cooking tortellini.
Main course – Lazio: codfish stew
While several Italian Christmas recipes for main courses feature traditional meat roasts (usually veal, pork or lamb), we have chosen to present you with a different option, that might look rather unusual to you, depending on what your local Christmas menus usually feature. Codfish is a key ingredient of Roman cuisine and generally popular in the whole Lazio region. It is not surprising, therefore, that it should be the main component of a traditional Christmas Eve main course. While not exactly “lean” per se (cod is among the fatter types of fish), it still counts as fish and therefore definitely “lean enough” for a Christmas Eve. Some sources have this recipe as an originally Jewish one, which is also likely, since the Roman-Jewish culinary tradition is the most ancient in the region and it has largely shaped Roman cuisine as a whole. The recipe itself is simple, but it requires the codfish to be soaked for three days before being stewed in tomato pulp with pine-nuts and raisins.
Dessert – Campania: struffoli
You were probably expecting Panettone, but we thought we’d present you with something you might not have heard of. Also, Panettone is not originally an overall Italian tradition, but a specifically Lombard one. As it is now incredibly popular, you are likely to find a perfectly good one in your local shop and therefore you probably don’t need to read about it here. Struffoli, on the other hand, are a proper Neapolitan speciality that you will be hard-pressed to come across elsewhere. Similar recipes exist in other southern Italian regions, but the tradition of honey-covered wheat-balls has not yet reached the upper part of the Country, for some reason. Which is odd, because these tiny, sticky nuggets of sweetness are incredibly addictive. The original recipe is said to date back to ancient Greece, which is plausible as they definitely fall within the ancient tradition of desserts that are sweetened with honey rather than sugar (which is a relatively recent acquisition in the Mediterranean area). The contemporary version of this recipe has the Struffoli covered in candy drizzle, but a few generation back it was customary to use raisins, pine-nuts and anise seeds.
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