Christmas in Italy
Christmas begins when the cannons are fired from Castel St. Angelo and the 24 hour fast ends; eight days after the special Novena* of prayers began and right after the Church service, the feasting begins. In the days of yore gifts were drawn from the Urn of Fate** and good wishes were exchanged; nowadays the feasting begins at this time & rarely ends until after the New year has been thoroughly welcomed. Christmas in Italy originated with the pagan traditions of the ancient Romans
and the winter solstice celebrations they had around this time. It was for this reason that the Catholic Church decided to institute the Christian celebrations; it was the perfect way to end the overly raucous Saturnalia celebrations and introduce the more dignified celebrations that would commemorate the birth of Jesus. The Italian word for Christmas, ‘Natale‘ (birthday) was, therefore, chosen. No evil undertones or secret hints of paganism were ever intended, on the contrary; all the pope wanted to do was impress upon the people that Saturnus was a myth & that, in effect, they murdered Saturn and introduced Jesus. Nothing sinister, nothing evil, just a message to people in a language that they understood.
The date & day was of no importance, the event was and it was such an important event to the Catholics that it warranted a day when everyone would be at home celebrating with love; since Italians express love so well in food, there was a heck of a lots of food. Italian children start building a presepio (a nativity scene) around this time of the year and moms & dads are dragged through the cities & towns so that their children can start building them in the piazza’s, doorways and in their homes – certainly one of the most typical symbols of the season. This tradition originated in Italy when St. Francis of Assisi asked Giovanni Vellita who lived in the tiny village of Greccio to make a manger scene for him one Christmas & he performed mass right there and that’s how it all began. In Italy the main exchange of gifts takes place on the 6th of January on the feast of the Epiphany when the Magi’s symbolically visitthe Christ Child.
Children nervously await a visit from La Befana who brings gifts for the good and punishment for the bad. Legend has it that she was an old woman who refused food and shelter to the Magi and a while after they had gone, changed her mind and went to look for them but without success! Today she still looks for them. At times she’s a witch, at times a Fairy Queen and at times an old crone – it varies from region to region and family to family. We find the last tradition in Abruzzo and Rome where, in days gone by, the Christmas festivities were announced by the pifferari who played beautiful music on the bagpipes – the
tradition is all but forgotten. Christmas Eve dinner consists largely of fish; often as many as ten to twenty fish dishes will be prepared and eaten over the course of the evening! In Rome, the traditional dish on Christmas Eve is is Capitone, a large female eel, roasted and baked. Panettone, torrone and panforte rich with hazelnuts, honey and almonds keep the sweet toothed happy; most Christmas sweets contain nuts and almonds and are sweetened with honey. The peasants of old believed that eating nuts favoured the fertility of the earth and contributed to the increase of flocks and family and in ancient Rome; the honey ensured a sweet year!
- 1 kg eels, skinned and cleaned
- 4 or 5 bayleaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 lemons, zest only
- Pre-heat oven to 180 C
- Make a cut in the back of the eel and coil it into the oven dish that has been rubbed with olive oil or, alternatively, make a cut in the back of the eel, cut it into large pieces and put on a skewer with a bayleaf between each section – in this way it is easier to roast it.
- Sprinkle with the lemon zest, salt and freshly ground pepper.
- Add the bay leaves and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes until done, turning once during the cooking process.
- It is very fat and will roast in it’s own fat – there is no need to cover it, roast it open but keep an eye on it.
- Serve with freshly sliced lemons and fresh crunchy bread.
- 500g eel-cleaned, and skinned
- 500 g prawns, cleaned and with the heads off
- 500g finely diced tomatoes
- 150 ml red wine
- 1 handful capers
- 1 handful black olives, de seeded
- 1 heaped teaspoon hot red paprika
- 250 g fresh, finely diced fennel
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Pre-heat oven to 200 C
- Rinse eel and slice into large slices, about 2.5 cm and dry thoroughly. Put the tomatoes, red wine, capers, olives and paprika in an oven proof pot and over medium heat bring to the boil.
- Season eel pieces with salt and pepper and put into the simmering sauce.
- See that it is well covered with sauce, put in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes.
- Remove from oven, stir in the prawns and see that the prawns are covered with the sauce, then cook for another 10 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the chopped fennel – serve with thick slices of toasted Italian bread.
SFORMATO DI PANETTONE
Everybody has at least one Panettone in their store cupboard at Christmas time – they are so good that nobody really bothers to buy one nowadays anyway. This is a delightful dessert for Christmas eve – the quantities can be doubled!
- 100 g pannetone cake, cut into cubes after hollowing out, leave the crust and place the mixture inside it to set later
- 2 tbsp orange juice
- 2 tbsp finely chopped, candied citron peel
- 3 tbsp sultanas
- 20 g candied orange, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp Grand Marnier
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 gelatine leaves
- 300 ml custard
- 100 ml double cream
- 1 orange, zest only
- 1 lemon, zest only
- Berries for garnishing
- 250 ml milk
- 4 large egg yolks
- 120 g caster sugar
- Put the orange and lemon zest, candied citron peel, sultanas and candied orange with the orange juice, Grand Marnier and honey in a pot and bring to the boil, reducing this by half.
- In the meantime, soak the gelatine in cold water for 5 minutes and squeeze out well.
- Remove the pot from the heat and whilst still warm, mix the content of the pot with half the custard and all the gelatin, blend very well and set aside to cool, stirring occasionally.
- Whisk the egg whites until they are stiff and fold this into the gelatine mixture and then all the caster sugar.
- Whip the cream until quite thick and fold this in.
- Finally fold in the panettone cubes and pour into the hollowed out crust – allow to set for about 3 – 4 hours.
- Serve with the remaining custard.
Make the custard like this:
- Pour the milk into a saucepan and bring to the boil, removing at once from the heat.
- In a separate pot, whisk the egg yolks and the sugar until pale and fluffy.
- Add the milk in a slow continuous stream whisking constantly.
- Cook the custard over a medium heat, whisking constantly until it thickens – do no let it boil!
- 500 g finely ground hazelnuts
- 500 g icing sugar
- 2 generous tablespoons unsweetened cacoa
- 7 egg whites
- Pre-heat oven to 180 C
- Prepare two flat baking trays by greasing and lining with baking paper
- Mix the hazelnuts, icing sugar, cocoa and cinnamon together with the egg whites and mix well with an electric mixer until everything has combined well.
- With wet (not sodden) hands, make small round balls (about one tablespoon of dough) and place on the baking tray about 2 cm apart; they do go flat when you bake them.
- Bake for 30 minutes, remove and allow to cool before packing them away.
* a devotion consisting of prayers or services on nine consecutive days. ** The urn of fate is a wrapped bowl that contains gifts for everyone in the family on Christmas.