Bearing in mind Italians’ reputation for flamboyance and passion, it came as quite a surprise to find that Christmas is celebrated in rather an understated manner in Italy. It remains first and foremost a religious festival, and although it is one of the church’s cheerier ones, it is still treated with a greater degree of reverence than in UK and hence is not subject to anywhere near the same level of rampant commercialism – thankfully.
First of all, there is barely a hint of the approach of Christmas until the feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December, which is when most families put up their Christmas trees and decorations and when town centres turn on their Christmas lights. No giant inflatable snowmen and rooftop reindeer, though, and no Blackpool-style illuminations either: it really is all very restrained and traditional with clear rather than coloured lights and masses of pine swags and wreaths – no holly, though. And although Father Christmas – aka Babbo Natale – plays a leading role in festivities, the star of the show is very much the baby in a manger. There will often be a nativity scene as well as a tree in the central piazza; museums and galleries put on exhibitions of nativity scenes, and starting from Santo Stefano (Boxing Day) many towns and villages put on a living nativity scene – presepe vivente – complete with ass if not the ox.
This relative restraint is also apparent when it comes to Christmas shopping. People exchange gifts in Italy in much the same way as in the UK and so the shops do get much busier in December, but there is certainly no ‘shop ‘til you drop’ mentality, and shops themselves don’t seem to rely on sales over the Christmas period for their very survival. Christmas ‘gift packs’, novelty goods and jokey stocking fillers are not ‘a thing’ here. Nor are Christmas cards, and advent calendars of any kind – even the more traditional variety, never mind those filled with cheap chocolates or toys – simply don’t exist, and Christmas wrapping paper, gift tags and ribbon are quite difficult to come by too. But since most shops beautifully gift-wrap even the smallest purchase for you – one of my purchases for Mr Blue-Shirt (a set of grappa glasses, since you ask) came extravagantly wrapped in chocolate-scented paper, for instance – this is not much of an issue.
This being Italy, however, what there is definitely an abundance of is food and family-based feasting. Fish is traditional on Christmas Eve, and while there is no single dish that is typical, fish in some form or another will almost certainly feature among the antipasti, in the primo and in the secondo – all of which will be cooked from scratch. Mr Blue-Shirt observed this tradition, by the way, and rustled us up a truly yummy dish of lobster poached in a shellfish bisque served on homemade linguini. Then on Christmas Day, meat takes centre stage, although once again, no single dish is typical in any one region, never mind nationally. Roast turkey is eaten, but just as common are goose, pheasant, partridge and duck, or, in Le Marche at least, a large joint of porchetta – roast pork. We went English this time, though, and opted for turkey with all the trimmings – except for roast parsnips, which are unheard of here.
While there is no equivalent of British-style Christmas pudding or mince pies, dried fruit, nuts and spices in various combinations are the key ingredients in most desserts. Frustingo, for instance, is a Marchigian speciality made from a deliciously squidgy mix of dried figs, almonds, pine nuts, raisins, chestnuts and candied peel flavoured with coffee, chocolate, rum and mosto cotto (a syrupy reduction of the leftovers of the wine-making process – and much tastier than it sounds). Probably about the only truly national favourite – and one of the very few dishes that are mass-produced rather than homemade – is panettone, the large, domed, brioche-like cake studded with sultanas and citrus peel that is fast becoming as popular in the UK as here in Italy.
Being none the wiser, we followed English culinary custom on Boxing Day – Santo Stefano – with a meal of cold turkey and bubble and squeak. But it was while I out for a conscience-easing run along the seafront at Civitanova Marche, that I discovered that this is the day on which Italian families typically go out for lunch. Most of the town’s beachfront restaurants had come out of hibernation for the festive period and every single one of them was crammed with multi-generational groups of ten, twelve or more, all tucking in to steaming bowls of saffron-scented brodetto (fish stew), huge pans of silky pasta mixed with locally caught shellfish and platters piled high with crispy fritto misto (mixed fried fish). Note to self for next year…
Which only leaves New Year’s Eve still to go. Exceptionally for an ‘Eve’, meat rather than fish is traditional. And just as exceptionally, it is the same dish all over Italy – zampone: slowly simmered pig’s trotter (I jest not) stuffed with seasoned sausage meat. In fact, so ubiquitous is this dish, which actually originated in Modena, that it is now mass-produced in a kind of quick-cook, vacuum-packed kit. The tall thin blue boxes with all-too vivid illustrations of their contents have probably been in the supermarkets longer than any other seasonal speciality apart from the green lentils – a symbol of prosperity – that typically accompany the zampone. We are seeing the New Year in at a favourite haunt of ours, a cosy, family-run restaurant that is just a short walk away. As well as being very well-established and very popular, it is also very traditional. So we are hoping they will be generous with the lentils…
Felice Anno Nuovo a tutti!