Archive for category Tuscan Christmas Table Talk
“There is no Santa Claus in Italy.”
Harsh words indeed from my beloved grandfather, Batiste, as I sat at his knee just two weeks before Christmas many years ago. He was recounting to me tales of his poor childhood in Italy. I looked up into my grandfather’s face, and smiling brightly told him, “that’s ok Pop, we live in Australia and he comes here every year so don’t worry. I’m getting a brand new bike!” He gave that exasperated sigh I often heard when I was around him. I’m sure deep down he realised I was a lost cause, but he persisted with the Befana Legend.
He told me that as a child, he had to wait until January 6, The Feast of the Epiphany, to get his presents. I was still wondering who the “Epiphany’s” were and how come they had his stuff, when he said that Christmas gifts were actually delivered by an old crone with a hairy mole on her chin who flew in on a broom. She was called La Befana.
The legend of La Befana has her almost always in the kitchen, cooking and sweeping. On the first Christmas, the Three Wise Men stopped by her house, asking directions to Bethlehem. Obviously the three “wise” men were a little directionally challenged, because hey, via Italy to Bethlehem – how smart were these guys? Anyhow, she cooked them dinner and later over a glass of wine, they told her they were going to see the Christ child and would she like to come along? Looking around her kitchen at the mess from feeding these guys, she declined thinking it’d be hours before she could get to bed. After they left, she was sweeping the floor when she realised what they’d said. Were they really going to see the baby Jesus? She took off after them with her handbag, running so fast that the broom she still carried lifted her up into the air.
Ever since, on the Eve of the Epiphany, La Befana flies through the night still searching for the baby Jesus, and delivering goodies to children, hoping one of them is the Christ child. In the same way we leave out cookies and a glass of milk, children here leave out a glass of wine and make sure their stockings are hung for when she arrives. Traditionally, naughty children received a lump of coal, and good ones got sweets. These days they’ll find their stockings filled with a mixture of coal, actually a black rock candy, maybe onions, potatoes or olive oil and at the very bottom hopefully some chocolates and caramels.
PS. Nowadays Santa Claus is even in Italy and he is known as Babbo Natale. But he’s not the jolly fat fellow we all know so well either! He’s a little on the skinny side, obviously he doesn’t eat too much pasta!!
it is not a “ball” but a icosahedral geodesic sphere which means it has triangular faces meeting at each vertex to form a sphere
is 12 feet in diameter
is illuminated by 32,256 Philips LEDS
is a permanent feature in Times Square
is covered with Waterford Crystal 2.688 triangles
And did you know that in Florence Italy, it wasn’t until 1749 that the people of Firenze began to celebrate the New Year on 1° of January? According to the Catholic Church the 1° of the year was 25 Marcdh until the Grand Duke Franceeco III of Lorena made a law changing the civil year.
Happy New Year’s Celebration to one and all!
I was introduced to this great idea of receiving Christmas baskets from your employer while working in Tuscany and though sometimes they can be quite predictable filled normal kind of stuff . . . every once in a while there are a few surprises. Last year both me and DH brought home Christmas baskets filled with sweets – and while they were all delicious . . . there is a limit to how much sugar two people can consume (I know not everyone agrees…but in our household it is true!)
This year we have two complementary baskets – DH brought home an artisan baked pandoro, ricciarelli, panforte and a delicious selection of dried fruit (figs, dates, apricots) AND chocolate covered torrone – then he had a hunk of Parmesan cheese, two different types of salami and the traditional cotecchino for the New Year celebration. – Practically one third of Christmas lunch is in his basket. I instead am bringing home three bottles of Chianti wine – another third of Christmas dinner. The last piece is already in the refrigerator waiting to be baked, broiled and roasted.
We will start off with what the Italians call “affettati.” Translated this is a huge cutting board filled with salami, prosciutto, dried figs, Parmesan cheese and honey and on the side there will be a few crostini neri (the Tuscan chicken liver patè) and of course a fett’unta! We have been saving all the bottles of fresh pressed oil so that we can taste our way through the holidays.
I admit we have already done a fair bit of taste testing – but in our defense we have received over 10 different olive oils from friends, clients and relatives. We couldn’t possibly control our urge to taste the new oil with some toasted bread, a bit of garlic, fresh ground pepper and salt…. yummmmmm.
After we have finished off the cutting board – we then move on to the pasta. This year DH has requested lasagna, just like Nonna used to make. Well I don’t know if it will rank up there with Nonna, but I have been told my lasagna is definitely a 4 star masterpiece. So I do aim to please. It’s simple enough in the ingredients (pasta, Italian style meat sauce, besciamella, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese) but the mix is just . . . oh scrumptious! I know most people are used to hearing ricotta in the list but in the area where I learned how to make lasagna …. or as some will call pasta al forno there is no ricotta.
Once the pasta has been drooled over and plates licked clean we start with the main course. Though many of you may be thinking…what?!? there is more to come? I say – YES ! absolutely, there is always more to come in an Italian household.
Another Italian tradition – anatra con l’arancia – duck with oranges. The main course for Christmas in Tuscany usually includes some kind of fowl and the list is long: there is chicken (three types to be exact: gallina, cappone or fararona) or duck (anatra) and then pigeon (picione), quail (quaglia), some will even do goose ( oca). This year I have ventured into unknown territory and bought us a lovely duck all decorated with oranges and pancetta (as if a duck needed any more fat in it!)
Though its hard to imagine – there will be side dishes to this meal – potatoes (because every thing that is roasted gets potatoes with rosemary and sage on the side) and most probably peas . . . another tradition with any Sunday or holiday lunch.
All this will be accompanied by a selection of various wines . . . and maybe some water but as the Tuscans, or any Italian for that matter, like to say – water? No thank you, I’ll wait until it rains. I will definitely start off with some chilled prosecco – because I love the dry bubbles! The lasagna can have either a lambrusco (because la Mamma likes it) or maybe a fresh white – we have a Pecorino sitting at home taht is very fregrant. Then the roast duck will most definitely have a Chianti Classico – and do have an selection to choose from! Probably something robust and flavorful – like those that Pierotucci gave out this year from Tenuta San Vito.
And then … well now the tough part starts because you just ate until you can eat no more and then there the desserts are spread out on the table, and they literally seem never ending. Panettone, Pandoro, panforte, ricciarelli, torrone, nuts and dried fruit, chocolates and candies, fresh fruit (well that is more for show than anything else) and the spumantes and vin santos.
It would appear that you really couldn’t eat another bite . . . but low and behold you start to nibble here and then there, and before you know it you have just consumed another 1000 calories without even trying!
Each culture has its own special desserts for the holidays, things that have been passed down from generation to generation following traditional recipes. These things are part of us since we were children – however as an adult in Italy I have found the room to add a few new holiday favorites to my list. Though I am not a big fan of almond paste, marzipan and almond cookies – I do have to make an exception for the Ricciarelli. I certainly hope that Santa has room in his bag to bring me a nice tray full!
These holiday treats are cookies made using an ground almonds (no flour) with sugar, honey and egg whites then formed into oval shaped cookies that is normally lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar. I had the great fortune to work in Export Sales for an Italian bakery called Menchetti, and they made a ricciarelli — well as the Italians would say these cookies were “parlante”, which means that it was so good it “spoke” to you. Not only did they make them with powdered sugar on top but also ricciarelli dipped in dark chocolate. . . now that was (as my little sister used to say) to die for!
These cookies were originally found in the Siena area, but now they are definitely synonymous with Italian Christmas Treats all over Italy. There snow white tops call to mind the beautiful snow capped mountains in Abetone or Mt. Amiato in the Tuscan area near Siena. Legend accredits these cookies to Ricciardetto who brought the recipe back with him during the crusades, yet the BuonItalia site which takes care of all DOC and ITG recipes and foods indicates that these cookies most probably have its origins in the fact that this area of Tuscany was particularly strong in the trade of spices and other delicacies.
and this is my new design at the house – set on three levels, and for those of you who are wondering the blue stuff on the left is supposed to be a river which turns into a waterfall in the shepherds pasture….have a little bit of imagination! :
a close up with soft lighting gives it another look:
Lights, Camera ……. Action!
Coming from the UK, the “turning on” of the Christmas lights has always been a pretty momentous occasion. Big crowds gather in central London, usually Regent Street, and a hugely famous celebrity does the deed amid rapturous cheers from the crowd.
Here in Florence, the 8th December is the magic day when street lights are turned on, albeit rather unceremoniously by comparison – but even though there is less pomp and circumstance, the abundance of lights are vast. Not only are the main and side streets of Florence filled with colourful displays of dripping designs, the small towns also have their own light extravaganzas in the main streets and piazzas.
When it comes to Florentine homes, they are slowly coming round to the idea that decorating the house is actually fun and colourful lights and climbing santas are becoming regular features.
The main focus of Christmas decorations in Italy is the presepe, Nativity scene or creche. Nearly every church will have a presepe and they are often found outdoors in a square or other public area as well. Displays often go beyond just the nativity scene and may even include a representation of the entire village or a part of the town. Presepe are usually set up for about a month, starting around December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.
All the churches and almost everybody in Italy try to compete for the most beautiful nativity mangers during Christmas. Naples is the place where most of these mangers are manufactured. In fact, the most beautiful Cribs are set up in churches and people go around Naples to view and compare the nativity scenes.
Though Hanukkah falls between November to December, Hanukka isn’t really a Jewish version of Christmas. Hanukkah is a festival dedicated to many things, including the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem with olive oil. In English it is known as the Festival of Lights. Children especially love this festival. There is a traditional game with a spinning toy called a “dreidel”. It has four Hebrew letters, one on each side and they represent the words “a great miracle happened here.” Not to mention the custom to receive a small gift on each of the eight days that Hannukah lasts.
Speaking as a Jewish expat from Britain, I have to admit that it has been a little sad that I am not surrounded by close family at this happy time. It’s very difficult to explain, but sometimes, being Jewish isn’t always about keeping every custom and tradition. Sometimes it’s about a feeling, a difference in the air, something that is intangible and very hard to describe. Jewish festivals are very much about all the family being together, enjoying a home cooked meal and feeling the warmth and comfort only close family and friends can bring. Even though Italy is now my home, there is nothing quite like the feeling when I go home to England to see my mother and brother.
The holiday’s origins go back to 168 BC, when the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus captured Israel. Mattathias, a devout priest and his five sons fought for three years against the tyranny of King Antiochus. They called themselves the Maccabees and eventually won the great battle. The Jews reclaimed their temple and lit the precious oil in celebration. The oil was enough to last one day but miraculously it lasted for eight days and the original oil lamp is now the traditional “menorah” a candelabra with eight branches, one for each day plus the higher branch which is lit every day.
It takes eight days to prepare freshly pressed olive oil, so where better to go for inspiration than Italy where olive oil is almost considered a beverage? The original recipes have changed to reflect the local ingredients of the new countries where the Jewish people settled; those who settled in the Mediterranean use fresh-pressed olive oil to fry their holiday foods, because Hanukkah falls at the end of the olive-pressing season. And just as the menorah plays an integral part in the religious practice of the holiday, so too does the latke. But potato latkes aren’t the only latke that is a part of Hanukkah cuisine. In Italy they make polenta latkes! Cornmeal is used to make polenta – the coarse yellow variety is most traditional.
And Pasta Latkes, made with fine egg pasta and fried in olive oil, are also credited by some local Italian Jews as the most ancient Hanukkah recipe still served today. They’re delicious when fried crisp and crunchy and served with apple sauce. But we have choosen a recipe that has peaked our interest….an Italian version of the classic doughnuts served in this period.
FRITTELLE DI HANUKKAH (Hanukkah Fritters)
Author Edda Servi Machlin fondly recalls an elderly aunt in Italy getting up at the crack of dawn during Hanukkah to make these ancient alternatives to the more familiar doughnuts for her family.
2½ cups unbleached flour plus more to flour work surface
2 envelopes active dry yeast
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons anise seeds, crushed
1 cup dark seedless raisins
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil and more for frying
1½ cup honey
Combine 2½ cups flour with the yeast, salt, anise seeds and raisins. Gradually add warm water and olive oil until a pliable dough is formed. Turn out on a floured surface and knead 5 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. This may also be done with the dough hook in an electric stand mixer. Shape dough into a ball on a floured board, cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1 hour, until more than doubled in bulk.
With the palms of your hands, deflate dough and pat to a thickness of about ½ inch. Oil the blade of a long, sharp knife and cut dough into 36 diamond shapes. Let rest, uncovered, 15-20 minutes.
In a wide, shallow pan, add oil to a depth of 1½ inches (you can use a bland vegetable oil rather than olive oil if you prefer). Heat until the temperature reaches 365° on a deep-fry thermometer. Fry in batches so as not to crowd pan, turning once, until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels.
Meanwhile, heat the honey in a small saucepan and allow to boil for 3 minutes. Place drained fritters on a serving platter and pour the hot honey over them.
Serve as soon as possible, with plenty of paper napkins.
You know its getting closer to Christmas when the Italians stop counting calories….
Another favourite Italian Christmas tradition is the Pand’oro, not to be confused with the candied fruit laden Panettone. This wonderful creation is a sweet, buttery and super-moist leavened sweetbread; star-shaped with eight points and also resembling a Christmas tree. It is always displayed sprinkled with confectioner’s (also known as powdered) sugar just before serving, which looks like snow has fallen on the top.
But do we really need another dessert at the Christmas table, you may ask? Absolutely! You can never have too much sugar at this time of the year. Besides, I think bouncing off the walls keeps the kids safe and occupied when the new toys and games are exhausted. And the origin of this delightful festive table addition? Read on…
Pand’oro first appeared in the middle ages at a time when only the rich and the nobility were able to enjoy sweet breads made with eggs, butter and sugar or honey. Hence the name which literally means “royal bread” or “golden bread” Sweetbreads such as this were reserved solely for feasts and special occasions for the wealthy. In a publication known as “Suor Celest Balilei, Letters to Her Father” (published by La Rosa of Turin), desserts in Italy during the 17th century included the royal bread, which was made of sugar, eggs, butter and flour. This description is also famous from the 1st century Ancient Rome, but substituting the butter with oil! This dessert figured prominently in Venetian aristocracy, particularly as Venice was the principal point for spice trade in the late 18th century. However, it was in Verona where the pand’oro was perfected in a process which took almost a century! The process was perfected in Verona thanks to Domenico Melegatti, who patented the commercial production of this delight!
There are some who credit the French brioche as the mother of Pand’oro with its birth in the 18th century at a time when commoners unfortunately were only able to afford “black” bread, which was bread made of rye or barley, if any bread at all. Remember when Marie Antoinette was told of the poor who were starving without bread? Her famous retort was ”let them eat cake!”. Fortunately the Pand’oro, unlike Marie, kept it’s head, and shape, and continues to enjoy its place at the table! Long live the Pand’oro!!
When not served on its own with a glass of bubbly it can also be found sliced horizontally and filled with a rich mixture of mascarpone cream, see our easy to follow recipe below!
Pierotucci Italian leather men’s messenger bag
This vertical shoulder leather men’s messenger bag with handle has sturdy sides and combination lock making it the perfect men’s leather messenger bag for your most important things. One large compartment with two discreet slim inner pockets allow for organization to the highest degree. For business or pleasure, this bag will give you the utmost feel of security AND style all-in-one.
Christmas traditions. I love ’em, but lots of them I didn’t always understand. Take for instance, the Italian panettone. What is it? I used to think it was an Italian football for kids, but then I got my glasses! It’s a bread style cake that looks like a big head that didn’t fit its tin and splooged over the top. But appearance aside…it’s delicious! And no Italian Christmas would be complete without one!
The Panetone is a high round cake made of flour, eggs, sugar, sultanas and sometimes with candied fruit, with an almost bread-like consistency. The boxed variety is widely available in local supermarkets, but the rich and especially delicious panettone you buy freshly baked from the “pasticceria,” or pasty shop. It’s usually eaten on Christmas day, but if you’re like me, I buy three during the season! (and I won’t even begin to count how many out of season) One is to eat right away, and is also fabulous toasted for breakfast (recipe below). The second is for Christmas Day after lunch with coffee, and again later in the evening with a glass of Vin Santo or Prosecco. Finally, the third panettone is often taken as a gift when visiting.
And where did this wonderful addition to the Italian table come from? The origins are somewhat hazy (where’s a quill and inkwell when you need one?), but here are a couple. You choose:
There’s the legend that this sugar’n’spicy little number was created in the kitchens of the famous Milanese Sforza family, notably Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Apparently the chef’s cake was overcooked in the oven and a quick thinking young kitchenhand saved the day by whipping up this lovely new concoction.
Another, and this is my favourite with shades of Romeo and Juliet, is about a falconer who fell in love with a baker’s daughter. The falconer was in the service of Ludovico il Moro, better known as Ludwig the Moor. Ludwig’s castle was one of the richest of the Italian Renaissance and was the centre of attraction for the best artists of the time, among which were Leonardo and Bramante. Ludwig the More is most famously remembered for the commissioning of the Last Supper by da Vinci!! Anyhow, back to the panettone!! As you’d expect, the kitchen of such a great court was aptly stocked, which allowed the young falconer to create something special – the panettone! This so impressed the baker, he granted permission for the two to be married. This humble cake went on to become a favourite with the locals in Milan and elsewhere throughout Italy. And in case you were wondering, the couple were happily married and produced 12 children – who were all born with big heads!! Hmmm??
Whatever the origins, the panettone is now an essential and delicious part of the Italian Christmas tradition. Perhaps you would like to make it part of yours? Buon Natale!
Florentine Olive Oil Bruschetta
5 slices of toasted Italian Bread, 1 garlic clove, salt & pepper to taste, your favorite fresh pressed TUSCAN olive oil
no need to peel the garlic, just rub it on the toasted bread (some people like to push the bread down a bit so it cracks the toast and makes it absorb more…yummm…then drizzle oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Best served hot to warm – and of course always with a glass of Tuscan red wine!
Then sit back and browse our new Italian Leather Gift Ideas!