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La Vigilia Napoletana


Come holiday season, many people write asking for recipes for the "Italian Seven-Fish Christmas Eve dinner." Some also wonder what the various dishes symbolize. This is an extremely difficult question for me to answer because a fish-based Christmas Eve dinner is not part of the Tuscan tradition -- It's more of a southern thing, celebrated from Rome on down. None of my South Italian cookbooks that mention Christmas Eve menus, moreover, attach a particular significance to a particular dish. I rather suspect that the symbolisms are local, in part because what is served is going to depend upon what is available, and this will vary from place to place (if a particular dish has a particular meaning for you, please share it, and the recipe, with us on the Forum).

The reason behind the use of fish, on the other hand, is simple: Christmas Eve is a vigilia di magro, in other words, a day of abstinence in which the Catholic Church prohibits the consumption of meat. Though this stricture is less observed now, in the past it meant that everyone would crowd the fish market on Christmas Eve, and Livio Jannattoni gives a wonderful description of the society dons and their dames gliding between the tubs of slithering eels and tables of shellfish and other delicacies in the Roman fish markets of the 20s, their elegant clothing and fine shoes contrasting oddly with the cold wet floors and the gruff fishmongers bent on making deals. Speaking of Naples, on the other hand, Caròla Francesconi writes, in La Cucina di Napoli, "The week before decisions are made regarding the three Christmas dinners, Christmas Eve, Christmas and Prima Festa (the 26th). The Christmas Eve dinner is more traditional than the others and must include:"

The Christmas day menu, she notes, is much freer -- baked pasta, either lasagna or a timpano, roasts -- fish for those who like it and capon or turkey, caponata, and dessert. The only requirement is Struffoli.

Even freer is the third of the dinners, on December 26th, which some people begin with tagliatelle with a ricotta-based ragú, and others do not.

One important thing to note about Ms. Francesconi's menu suggestions is that she doesn't specify the number of dishes to be served -- this will vary depending upon the number of people partaking. Another is that she mentions only traditional Neapolitan Christmas pastries. Modern marketing is a powerful force, and now, in addition to the traditional desserts you will almost certainly find either panettone or pandoro, and possibly panforte.

Panettone is a Milanese specialty bread made with raisins and candied fruit that keeps quite well, so well that Milanese tradition dictates a slice of the Christmas panettone be set aside for San Biagio, which is in mid-February; Pandoro is a airy, buttery Christmas cake from Verona; Panforte is an ancient Sienese variation on fruitcake, made with almonds, honey, flour and candied fruit. It's heavenly, though a little goes a long way.

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