Christmas celebrations are seriously religious here in Italy but the true religion is not in a church but at the table, a hedonistic ritual which demands extensive preparation and consumption. Celebrations begin on the Eve’s yes the big meals are Christmas Eve and New Years Eve which stuff you with so much food you don’t want to eat for another year.
The Italian Cenone is the essence of gluttony. Attending my first vigilia celebration I was reminded of an ancient Roman or Renaissance court banquet, where the food is excessive and the wine overflowing.
A Sicilian menu is endless: starting with appetizers like bruscetta, arancini rice balls, fried bread batter, canapes, cheeses, ham and cold meats, then a selection of pasta dishes which could be anything like lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, farfalle or fussili prepared with an array of rich sauces ranging from hefty béchamel flavored with smoked salmon, porcini mushrooms or the classic Bolognese. The menue varies depending in which part of Italy you find yourself. Some believe each Vigilia must be celebrated only with seafood, wherein the menu is revised but in these trying times of economic crisis this tends be over looked.
A normal menu can include main courses of roasted beef, pork, lamb, chicken, baby kid, wild boar, stuffed pigs feet, fried crumbed veal cutlets, fried baccala or cod, seafood salad, Russian coleslaw or lobster. Everything is washed down with red and white wines, topped off with a selection of exotic and winter fruits such as pineapple, dried figs stuffed with hazelnuts, oranges, mandarines.
Then there is the obligatory slab of Panettone or Pandoro Christmas cake for those who don’t like sultanas or caramelized fruit. Not to mention the endless desserts like liquor drenched dumplings, cannoli, profiterole cream puffs and alike!
Finally there is a glass of sparkling Spumante for good luck, before a night of indigestion and antacids.
For those brave of heart and strong of stomach you might indulge in a shot of digestive liquor ranging from potent Grappa, sour as hell Amaro, lemony Lemoncello or deliciously light chocolate or hazelnut delights.
Italians consume all of this and more. It is a well-known fact during this time of crisis Italian’s may have cut back on buying gifts yet not so on their food spending for these special occasions. The Cenone is sacred and it’s only once a year, thank goodness!
The abundance of Christmas provisions serves to be shared with equally abundant friends and family as the festive season is where the gregarious Italian culture finds its true expression, it is excessive but needs to be as you never know how many relatives will show up between Christmas and new years.
Buon Natale to everyone and to all a good Nye celebration.
Fellow COSI member Rick Zullo has also shared his Expat insights to Christmas in Italy.