Christmas is a personal event that changes from household to household almost anywhere you go, but an Italian Christmas is always about being with family and keeping up age-old traditions, especially when they have to do with the food.
This Christmas more than other is one where we’re thinking about being with our families, near and far, as we’re about to become new parents. Although this Christmas for us is likely going to be an extremely low-key event (very far from the two-day event that normally happens with my Tuscan in-laws), it’s still something that we’re getting a little nostalgic about – and not being there right now, our hearts are in Tuscany this Christmas.
It goes a little something like this: on December 24, part one of the two-day event begins as the entire day is spent preparing cookies and slow-cooked food for Christmas Day, as well Christmas Eve’s strictly no-meat dinner, a rule which means fish is on the menu. It is supposed to be a ‘lean’ meal, a spiritual gesture of fasting. My mother-in-law recalls that as a child in an Italy recovering from the war, Christmas Eve dinner was simple, essential: a pasta dish dressed with pureéd chickpeas, then perhaps baccalà, salted cod. No dessert. Wealthy families traditionally had eel gracing their tables for the occasion.
Today it’s a decisively more lavish event, being that an all-seafood theme is a good excuse to make a special dinner for guests. If it’s our turn to host dinner, this means not only folding out the table and finding spare chairs for the immediate family, partners and nieces, but also cousins, aunts, uncles, second and third cousins, grandparents, grandchildren, great grandparents, great aunts and great uncles. Four generations, all around the one table. And this is just one side of the family.
Despite the seafood extravaganza the night before, the following day is traditionally the real feast, the one filled with banquet-sized portions of at least two kinds of meat and flowing red wine: Christmas Day lunch. My in-laws and their extended family come from a Tuscan countryside upbringing, the food on their Christmas table reflects those traditions with a menu that is rarely deviated from by any generation.
Crostini di Fegatini are a must on any Tuscan table for Christmas – delicious, rustic chicken liver pate spread on rounds of toasted bread, usually made by one of the nonne. Then some wonderful, rich, slow-cooked ragu or stew, like wild boar in red wine and herbs that has been bubbling away since Christmas Eve, dressing wide strips of fresh egg pappardelle.
A number of the relatives keep their own birds – chickens, ducks, geese and guinea fowl – for the table. A special treat for Christmas is when a hand-reared capon is prepared for the day’s lunch: it is traditionally poached, with the broth used for a tortellini soup starter and the meat eaten as a main with creamy mashed potatoes. Then there may be roast meat – lots of it – from pork ribs, pork and fennel sausages and tagliata or bistecca, a large T-bone steak, grilled over red hot charcoal in the family fireplace and served with sides such as sautéed silverbeet and cannellini beans scented with sage.
Dessert is simple but everyone’s favourite: tiramisu, with freshly grated chocolate over the top and perhaps something to linger at the table with, like cracked walnuts and crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, cinnamon and aniseed-scented cavallucci cookies, a favourite Christmas treat from Siena, or cantuccini. You can’t eat Tuscan cookies without having something to dip them in, so a dessert wine like vin santo (a treat especially when it happens to be one of the relative’s own hand made, ten-year-old vin santo) is never missing from the table at the end of the evening either.
The dishes are the classics of the Tuscan table, tweaked according to the household’s traditions. They are the sort of food traditions that don’t change often, that don’t need to, that mothers or grandmothers have memorised in their hands; in other words, the perfect thing for warming hearts around the family table and sharing.