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Il Natale in Toscana

A Rich Christmas Dinner


Monte Amiata in winter
Kyle Phillips
The celebration of Christmas varies tremendously from place to place within Italy, and when I was in school I wondered about the multi-course fish-based Christmas Eve dinners my Italian American friends eagerly anticipated -- I had spent 1969 in a Florentine school, and none of my classmates had mentioned anything along these lines. For that matter, they didn't mention doing anything special for Christmas Eve; those who were observant Catholics planned to go to Midnight Mass, and that was about it. Christmas Day was to be spent with the family, but what they were really excited about was Epiphany, because then the Befana, a horrid old witch on a broomstick, would arrive bearing gifts and candies to the good children, and coal to those who were not.

It's amazing how much things can change in the space of a decade; by the time I moved to Florence in 1982 Christmas was immensely more commercial, with a brisk exchange of gifts, while Epiphany had fallen seriously into disfavor and some adults were grumbling that it really didn't deserve to be a holiday. Christmas's increased mundane importance did not, however, change the way my Florentine friends and I celebrated it: A quiet Christmas Eve, and then a delightful dinner on Christmas Day. I merely helped cook, while others saw to the menu, so it wasn't until later, when I checked the Christmas menu Pellegrino Artusi proposes in La Scienza in Cucina e L'Arte di Mangier Bene, which was published in 1890, that I realized just how traditional our dinner had been. He Suggests:

  • Crostini ai Fegatini di Pollo
    Chicken Liver Crostini, i.e. slices of toasted bread with liver paté: Even those convinced they don't like liver love these.
  • Cappelletti all'Uso di Romagna in Brodo di Cappone
    Cappelletti are similar to tortellini, but more delicate. A steaming bowl of them in capon broth is the traditional Christmas day soup in much of Northern Italy. Instructions for making broth, should you need them.
  • Cappone con uno Sformato di Riso Verde
    What better way to enjoy the boiled capon than serve it with a rice sformato? Artusi's is green, and will require the addition of a couple of tablespoons of finely minced spinach or chard.
  • Pasticcio di Lepre
    Hare paté: A pleasing chilled dish.
  • Faraona ed Uccellini Arrosto
    A roast is a must; Artusi enjoyed Guinea hen and game birds.
  • Sweets
  • Siena's Panforte, an extraordinary delight, Pane Certosino -- Carthusian bread from Bologna, and toasted almond ice cream

We didn't exactly follow Artusi's menu, of course. In addition to crostini, we began with a platter of affettati misti, in other words prosciutto, salami, and finocchiona, and also had sottoaceti, pickled vegetables, and sott'oli, vegetables packed in oil -- that remained on the table throughout the meal, and were especially appreciated with the capon, which was also accompanied by mayonnaise and some mostarda, the glorious sweet-and-pungent fruit from Cremona (among other places). Our roast featured guinea hen and pigeon rather than game birds, and we accompanied it with patate alla ghiotta, potatoes that roasted in the pan with the birds, absorbing the drippings and becoming delightfully creamy, and spinaci rifatti, boiled spinach resautéed with garlic. And finally, rather than Pane Certosino we had ricciarelli, Siena's orange-laced marzipan delights, and accompanied the pastries with an assortment of dried figs, dates, and nuts.

The wines? We began with a light, zesty Chianti Classico D'Annata, followed by a Chianti Classico Riserva with the roasts, and ended with vinsanto and Asti Spumante (which is now simply Asti) for dessert.

Tanti Auguri!
Kyle Phillips

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