Christmas in Italy: tastes and traditions

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Food in Italy at any time of the year is pretty amazing. At Christmas time however, there are many great traditional Christmas recipes that are prepared and shared around large dinner tables with all the family.

These recipes are not only based on the seasonal and regional produce, but also on superstitions and traditions.

For instance, on Christmas Eve Italians enjoy a seafood dinner, which must be comprised of seven, nine, eleven or thirteen types of fish – depending on the town you are in.

In a lot of Italian towns, a bonfire is lit in the main piazza where the locals gather around. Then, many families will go to midnight mass.

The Pope holds a midnight mass in St Peter’s Basilica, drawing great crowds of people to Saint Peter’s Square who come to watch the mass projected on large screens. At midday on Christmas Day, the Pope appears in a window overlooking St Peter’s Square to give his Christmas message.

Gifts are exchanged either on Christmas Eve or on Christmas morning. However, since the main gift-giving day is traditionally Epiphany on 6th January, the gifts are often modest.

In the lead-up to Christmas, it is not unusual to see locals stopping into the delicatessen to buy whole cheese wheels, artisan honey, salamis or other food gifts to give. These food stores even have gift-wrapping available!

Prosecco wine and either a Panettone, Panforte or Pandoro are traditional food gifts that people give and also bring to any dinners held around Christmas to New Year’s.

Which brings us back to the Italian Christmas dinner table!

A traditional Christmas lunch in Italy consists of more dishes than you can shake a candy cane at!

Firstly, you have the ‘antipasti’ – the appetizers usually consisting of hams, cheese, vol-au-vents and crostini. Amongst these traditional Christmas dishes in Tuscany, you are likely to find Crostini Toscani (chicken liver pâté).

Then, you have your ‘primo piatto’ (first course). This is often tortellini in brodo (tortellini in broth) or perhaps ‘Crespelle’  – crêpes with a savoury filling such as spinach and ricotta. There is also usually a second ‘primo piatto’. This is usually a baked pasta dish like lasagne.

This second first course is obviously not to be confused with the actual second course – the ‘secondo piatto’.

In Tuscany, this may be a mix of roasted meats or ‘Bollito Misto’ – mixed boiled meats served with a green sauce, homemade mayonnaise and ‘mostarda’ – candied fruits in a mustard-flavoured syrup.

Then there will be a series of side dishes to work your way through. These will depend on the region, but don’t expect something light! It could be stuffed artichokes, peas with onion and pancetta, three-coloured peppers…  or whatever nonna’s speciality happens to be.

Then there is desert. ‘Dolci tipici’ – typical sweets – vary from region to region. If you’re lucky you will be served with a slice of panettone or pandoro Christmas cake (occasionally with warm, home-made custard drizzled over). However, it is more likely that you will be served with a desert and then the Christmas cake!

It is not unusual for Italians to place the fruit bowl on the table for diners to freshen their palates after a big meal. Liqueurs such as limoncello or grappa are then served along with an espresso.

The liqueurs are considered ‘digestives’ to help ease any tummy pains after such a big meal. Of course, they really just give you an excuse to sit around the table chatting some more with your loved ones.

Coffee is considered a conclusion to the meal, after which any remaining food and drinks on the table will be cleared away.

For those who don’t opt to fall into a food coma, a nice ‘passeggiata’ is often taken. In many cities and towns around Italy, locals will stroll the streets to see the local Presepio. Some shop owners may open their stores so that their passing friends and family can pop in to say hello.

As to dinner on Christmas night? It’s likely to be light leftovers, or possibly just a bowl of broth.

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