Emma Dance meets Lucy Tarallo-Fox, Director of Italian food mail order firm Tickled Fig, to find out more about Italian Christmas cuisine.
Christmas is the time to go all out when it comes to food, and no-one knows that better than the Italians. While here in the UK we typically stuff ourselves for one (maybe two) days – gorging on turkey, munching through endless boxes of Quality Street and bulk buying the mince pies, in Italy it’s a very different affair.
“The Christmas period really does run for 12 days,” explains Lucy Tarallo-Fox, Director of Tickled Fig.
“It all kicks off on Christmas Eve and it’s very traditional in the sense that like the night before any holy occasion, we have fish and traditionally Italians would observe the abstinence of meat and butter.
“We would usually eat baccala which is cod that has been preserved in salt.
A traditional Italian Christmas lunch begins with antipasta, but it’s very different from the platter you can expect to be served up on the high street.
“You would not expect to see items that are used the rest of the year on special occasions such as Christmas,” says Lucy.
“We will have a selection of the very best cured meats and cheeses that are served with mostarda di frutta (candied fruits preserved in a mustard-flavoured syrup), onions pickled in balsamic vinegar and funghi di muschio (marinated mushrooms). The preference in Sicilian cuisine is to use the raw product (fruit, vegetable, meat or fish) when it is fresh. However, if there is excess stock then it is preserved by pickling, curing, salting or drying because wastage goes against everything the average Sicilian stands for!
“After the antipasta we have the pasta.
“We will use a different, more special type of pasta like giant pasta shells called lumachoni stuffed with ricotta cheese and baked in a passata tomato sauce.
“After the pasta there may be a meat course, but not always.
“If there is, it might be a piece of chicken fried in breadcrumbs and served with a salad, or maybe pork and beef meatballs or a steak.
“Then for dessert we would have tiramisu, and we always have panettone – a kind of sweet bread with sultanas – or pandoro which is like panettone without the fruit.”
There is no equivalent to Boxing Day in Italy, but the feasting continues again on New Year’s Eve.
“New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are a really big deal,” says Lucy. “On New Year’s Eve it is a big family occasion and everyone gets together. We have chickpeas which are roasted in herbs and spices, miscatedri (savoury pastries) and cannoli (sweet pastry shells filled with a sweetened ricotta cream cheese). Because they can all be prepared in advance it gives the family more time to relax together.
“New Year’s Day is as big an occasion as Christmas Day, and the family all get together again. We will have more antipasta and then cotechino and lenticche (large pork sausage served with lentils) and mostarda di frutta. It’s real Sicilian peasant food.
“Then the last really big occasion over the Christmas period is Epiphany on January 6, and this is when you would have presents.
“The emphasis is on having special items at Christmas and New Year, items that you wouldn’t have at any other time in the year, but not necessarily gorging on quantity – just appreciating the excellent quality.”
All the ingredients for preparing a traditional Italian Christmas Feast, along with recipes for the dishes, can be found at www.tickledfig.co.uk