Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
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Mangia Bene

In a very real sense the celebration of Christ’s mass, the feast day celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25 in Western Christian churches, is the quintessential Mediterranean holiday, albeit second to Easter in importance. Christmas was not observed earlier than 200 A.D. and it became a popular holiday in the Middle Ages. The many customs of Christmas those of northern European heritage are familiar with, the Yule log, the decorations of holly and mistletoe, the singing of carols, the giving of gifts, and the sending of cards are contributions of English-speaking countries. The Christmas tree is a German contribution and the American Santa Claus is a contribution of the Dutch in seventeenth-century New York.

And who was Santa Claus? He was a Mediterranean man. Santa Claus was originally St. Nicolas, the fourth-century A.D. bishop of Myra, the modern Demre, in today’s Turkey, a town famous now for its luscious tomatoes and juicy Valencia oranges. Saint Nicholas was born in the nearby city of Patara about 300 A.D. and came to Myra as a young man. Myra was a port as well as a farming town and St. Nicholas eventually became a patron saint of sailors. In the eleventh century, pirates stole his remains and deposited them in a new burial place in a church in Bari, Italy in the province of Apulia. As tales of St. Nicholas traveled to northern Europe legends that formed the basis of the Santa Claus we know today arose, including the bearing of gifts.

Christmas is a festive time in the Christian communities of the Mediterranean and even among some Muslims, who might buy a tree and decorate it in the same way secular Americans do with no reference to Jesus Christ as the Son of God. After all, Jesus, if not the Son of God, is at least a Muslim prophet too. Traditionally, Christmas was a special time when foods were made and eaten to celebrate the birth of Christ. In the Mediterranean many sweets, in particular, are associated with Christmastime. In the Middle Ages even kings concerned themselves with sugar as we know from King Philip III (1578-1621), the bigoted Spanish king responsible for the final expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609, who wrote to the Viceroy of Valencia from Aranjuez that he “consider that they should distribute more sweets and more turron among the poor of the city to celebrate Christmas.” It was with Philip II and Philip III that Spain began its prodigious periods of turron production.

Francisco Martínez Motiño, the master chef to Philip III, published the Arte de cocina, pasteleria, bizcocheria y conserveria in 1611. It is a very important book in culinary history, first because he talks about the organization of a real kitchen. The cook has to pay attention to three things: first is cleanliness, second is taste and third is speed. Martínez Motiño’s banquet for Christmas is ham as an entree, olla podridas, roast turkey with its gravy, little veal puff-pastry pies, roast pigeons and bacon, bird tartlettes over whipped cream soup, hollow cakes, roast partridges with lemon sauce, capirotada (batter of herbs and eggs) with pork loin, sausages and partridges, roast suckling pig, with cheese, sugar and cinnamon soup, leavened puff-pastry with pork lard, roast chickens.

The second course consists of roast capons, thin hard-baked cake with quince sauce, chicken with stuffed escarole, English empanadas, roast veal with arugula sauce, seed-cake of veal sweetbread and livers of small animals, roast thrush over sopa dorada (highly colored soup), quince pastries, eggs beaten with sugar, hare empanadas, German-style birds, fried trout with bacon fat, puff-pastry tart.

A third course comes of chicken stuffed with bacon-fried bread, roast veal udder, minced bird meat with lard, “smothered” or “drowned” (ahogados) pigeons, roast stuffed goat, green citron tarts, turkey empanadas, sea-bream stew, rabbit with capers, pig’s feet empanadas, ring-dove with black sauce, manjar blanco, a dish made of chicken mixed with sugar and milk and rice, fritters. In Catalonia, Christmas always saw the cook making escudella, which means “bowl,” the name of a big stew-soup, properly escudella i carn d’olla.

(Left: Escudella i carn d'olla, Aitormontse-Flickr)

At Christmas, the boiled beef and beef broth used for cooking thick macaroni may well have come from the aging oxen used to work in the fields and pull carts. Towards the end of autumn, when the farm work had been completed the aging animal was shut in its pen and fed on cereals, hay, and other grasses, fattened for sale and ultimately for slaughter.

Of the famous Christmas dinners, I must comment on that of Christmas day 1189 when Richard the Lion-hearted gave a sumptuous banquet at Castello Mategrifon in Messina in Sicily. The name of the castle means “curb on the Greeks.” He invited the King of France and the Sicilian notables. A few days later he had an interesting interview with the aged Abbot of Corazzo, Joachim, founder of the Order of Fiore. The venerable saint expounded to him the meaning of the Apocalypse. The seven heads of the Dragon were Herod, Nero, Constantius, Muhammad, Melsenuth (by whom he probably meant Abdul Mueim, founder of the Almohad sect), Saladin, and finally the Antichrist himself, who, he declared, had already been born fifteen years ago in Rome and would sit on the papal throne. Richard’s flippant reply, that in that case the Antichrist was probably the actual Pope, Clement III, whom he personally disliked. This splendiferous feast was described by Ambroise (flourished c. 1190) a Norman poet and chronicler of the Third Crusade, author of a work called L’Estoire de la guerre sainte, which describes in rhyming French verse the adventures of Richard Coeur de Lion as a Crusader. As proof of its splendor Ambroise, says that every dish was of gold or silver, and that there was not a dirty tablecloth in the hall, providing us some insight into hygiene in that period of time when it was notable that the tablecloths are clean.

In Provence, we know that for Christmas 1515 the master sugarer Berthomeu Blanch prepared a very refined confit of tuna tongue preserved in sugar and stored in earthenware pots. In the peasant tradition of the Middle Ages Christmas did not have the importance of Easter. In the city on the other hand, bourgeois life gave Christmas rather forced overtones. For the peasant, Christmas was basically a solstice festival and Christmas Eve was a magic moment when portents and signs of the future were read in the ashes of the great log in the fire. Many ritual foods have a long history, such as mortadella for Christmas, as we know because mortadelle is mentioned in the statutes of the Cathedral of Nice from 1233 as being made for holidays such as Easter, Pentecost, or Christmas along with meat and beans eaten with eggs, cheese and ravioli pie (crosete siue rafiole) which varied the meals. In Corsica, Christmas might see ventra, a stuffed pork stomach on table, stuffed with Swiss chard, cabbage, onions, and parsley.

Italy, too, a very Christian country, has many foods and rituals surrounding Christmas, such as the ritualization of lasagne for Christmas. A famous preparation for Christmas Eve on the island of Burano in the Venetian lagoon is a risi e fasjoi col brodo de gò, rice and beans with a broth made of goby. This isn’t the only famous Venetian dish with eel. Risotto de la “Visilia” is a special risotto made on Christmas Eve. It is unusual for two reasons: it is not cooked according to the risotto method, although it’s called a risotto, and it combines cheese with fish. The dish probably evolved from a simple fish pilaf, using, for example, goby. Then the eel was added and finally the beans.

Eel is a traditional food for Christmas Eve in Venice. Grilled eels are popular and it is said that the Doge Andrea Gritti died at the age of 84 on December 28, 1538 after eating too many grilled eels on Christmas Eve.

In the eastern portion of the Veneto, in the Cordevole Valley, lasagne al fornel is a fruit-based lasagne served on Christmas Eve as a first course, and not as a dessert. It is made with apples, raisins, figs, walnuts, and poppy seeds.

In the lower Lombardy lasagnette all'ajada is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. Ajada is a dialect word indicating how the lasagne is to be cut: about one-and-a-half inches wide, meant to resemble the swathing with which the Madonna wrapped the infant Jesus. It’s a simple dish of lasagnette, walnuts, breadcrumbs, and milk.

On Christmas Eve, the Bolognese ate stewed eels, while in other parts of Emilia and Romagna eels alternated with other kinds of fish such as herring or cod, sometimes marinated in a sweet-sour mixture. In the Modena area the preferred dish was the so-called baccala con la cola (creamed salt cod). Although it may have taken a back seat to zampone con lenticchie stuffed pig’s trotter with lentils which could be eaten on Christmas but was more traditional for New Year’s Eve. The foot and shin are boned and stuffed with ground pork snout and other ingredients. Carol Field tells us in Celebrating Italy that the lentils represent money and the sausage stuffing the container that will hold it.

For Christmas Day tortellini were cooked in chicken broth and served with beef, cotechino with mashed potatoes, and ciambella. Fo the New Year there were agnolotti or lasagne or tagliatelle, boiled beef and zuppa inglese. At Easter, passatelli, lamb alla cacciatora, zuppa inglese. Pan speziale (spiced bread) and certosino (a rich cake) were also eaten on these holidays, while at Carnival time the commonest sweets were sfrappole and sweet ravioli with mostarda (a spicy fruit preserve)

As associated as tortellini is with Bologna, in the Middle Ages it appeared on Bolognese tables only on Christmas Day. These were famous tortellini in broth, whereas the agnolotti of northern Emilia, which had a pure meat filling, were eaten drained from the broth or water they cooked in.

On the Christmas tables of Romagna, on the other hand, there were cappelletti filled with ricotta and other cheese. In this culinary diversity we see again the ancient separation between south and the north of the region: the dietary frontier survived the collapse of the military and political border between the north-eastern Lombard part of the region (Emilia) and the Byzantine southeastern part (Romagna) governed by exarchs appointed by the emperors of Constantinople, autocrats of the second Rome. A typical Christmas Eve dish of the Romagna peasantry in the Middle Ages was a minestra consisting of cappelletti made of ricotta, other cheese, eggs, and spices, all wrapped in thin sheets of the pastry used for lasagne.

As Carol Field tells us, in Rome some say it just isn’t Christmas if you don’t have gallinaccio brodettato, which she identifies as a chicken broth with onions, prosciutto, egg yolks, and wine. In Romanesco dialect gallinaccio refers to turkey.  For sweets, mostaccioli, the spicy fruit and nut pastries, are typical in Rome, struffoli in Naples, and buccellati, fig-filled pastries from Sicily. Panettone, the Christmas bread of Milan, is today almost a national bread known everywhere in Italy.

The great German author Goethe weighed in on the Italian eating habit, which he found amenable, in his Italian Journey. The Christmas holidays he spent in Naples, he tells us, “are famous for their orgies of gluttony. At such times a general cocagna is celebrated, in which five hundred thousand people vow to outdo each other. The Toledo and other streets and squares are decorated most appetizingly; vegetables, raisins, melons, figs are piled high in their stalls; huge paternosters of gilded sausages, tied with red ribbons, and capons with little red flags stuck in their rumps are suspended in festoons across the streets overhead. I was assured that, not counting those which people had fattened in their own homes, thirty thousand of them had been sold. Crowds of donkeys laden with vegetables, capons and young lambs are driven to market, and never in my life have I seen so many eggs in one pile as I have seen here in several places.”

“So far as flour-and-milk dishes are concerned, which our cooks prepare so excellently and in so many different ways, though people here lack our well-equipped kitchens and like to make short work of their cooking, they are catered for in two ways. The macaroni, the dough of which is made from very fine flour, kneaded into various shapes and then boiled, can be bought everywhere and in all shops for very little money. As a rule, it is simply cooked in water and seasoned with grated cheese. Then, at almost every corner of the main streets, there are pastry-cooks with their frying pans of sizzling oil, busy, especially on fast days, preparing pastry and fish on the spot for anyone who wants it. Their sales are fabulous, for thousands and thousands of people carry their lunch and supper home, wrapped in a little piece of paper.”

In the Abruzzo, Christmas Eve is a meal with seven or nine dishes; seven for the seven virtues and the seven sacraments, and nine for the Trinity plus three. Again many traditional dishes are based on fish, such as fedelini with a sauce of anchovies, roasted eel, and salt cod.

In Campania, the region of which Naples is the capital, the big Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. The supper is meatless as a reminder of earlier times when the populace followed the rituals of the Church more closely and a major feast required abstinence from meat. Typical in the Campanian home is salt cod, for instance, a preparation of baccalà con salsa di aglio, olio, limone, e prezzemolo. Salt cod was once one of the most inexpensive foods, but today is a luxury not only in Italy but in the U.S. too. Naples is famous for its Christmas decorations, especially the fabulous presepio you will encounter at every turn in a walk through the city. These crèches are everywhere and are handcrafted with exquisite detail. It is said that the first one was made by St. Francis in the little town of Greccio in 1223 as a way of retelling the story of Jesus’ birth. The popularity of eel for Christmas in Naples, and in fact throughout Italy, seems to be a phenomenon of pre-Christian times related to a water cult of the Etruscans that has now become a ritual food in which, in the words of author Carol Field, “the sacred and profane meet.” Of course, one reason that so much Christmas food revolves around fish is because of the symbology of fish in Christological thought, namely, Christ as a fisher of men. The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci), celebrated on Christmas Eve, also known as La Vigilia, is a well known tradition, believed to have originated in Southern Italy, that only exists among Italian-Americans as most Italians are clueless about it. It is a feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes.The dolci di natale, Christmas sweets, in Naples and in Sicily, are legendary and books have been written upon it.

In Apulia, a bread called frangolle is made by the Polignanesi who make it for Christmas and Easter. This bread is about four pounds and made into the form of a crown. The make it shiny on its surface with a cloth bath after a first cooking. Fennel with salted anchovy, finocchietti all’alice Salata is a preparation eaten on Christmas Eve in the area around Bari in Apulia. It is made with very young cultivated Florence fennel. Another old dish from Bari is minestra verde, a vegetable soup, traditionally served for Christmas. They make something similar in the Gargano, but use different parts of the pig as well as other vegetables such as cabbage. Further south, in Taranto, a typical dish for Christmas Eve is vermicelli with salt cod, vermicelli col baccalà, very simply prepared with homemade vermicelli.

Traditional Christmas preparations in Italy are the nadalin, a sugar-and-egg rich Christmas bread from Verona that literally means “little Christmas” and is related to the more famous pandoro made by the city’s professional bakers. The most famous of the Christmas breads is probably panettone, a yeasted cross between a bread and a cake studded with raisins and dried fruit and hardly ever made at home anymore. In Tyrolean Italy up north the zelten alla Bolzanese is a kind of fruitcake made with yeast. The struffoli found in the south are tiny fritters bound with caramel and are sometimes decorated with pine nuts. Bologna has its tortelli di Natale, a little cake enclosing a chestnut or chickpea filing mixed with chocolate, apricot preserves, fruit, or raisins. In Sicily, cucidati are fig-filled cookies, the same as the buccellati (little bracelets) found elsewhere in Italy. Torrone, the Italian nougat made of egg whites and honey was inherited from the Arabs, probably via the Spanish in Naples, and they are typical at Christmas.

Sicily has a great tradition of Christmas specialties such as pasticcio di ricotta, a ricotta and macaroni pie, made around the town of Mòdica in Sicily’s rugged interior where housewives typically make this baked macaroni preparation for Christmas dinner, both the macaroni and the ricotta being homemade even today.

The power and influence of eastern Christianity reached far beyond the walls of the monasteries thanks to the weekly days of fasting and four other periods of abstinence, namely Lent, Pentecost, the first half of August for the Feast of the Virgin, and the forty days following November 15 for Christmas. In this way, the church influenced the everyday diets of lay people and offered a less demanding way to achieve saintliness in life.

Although Christian pilgrims from the West continue to flock to Bethlehem for Christmas many of them don’t fully realize that the Arab Christians of Palestine are mostly members of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem and celebrate Christmas in the same manner as all of Eastern Orthodoxy. That means, they follow not the Gregorian calendar as the Roman Catholics and Protestant sects do, but the Julian Calendar, for whom the holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus falls during the first or second week of January. Many of the pilgrims of Eastern Orthodoxy are Greek and so one will find Greek Christmas dishes being served in the Holy Land, such as fassoulatha, a bean soup, or dishes with avgolemono sauce, while Arab dishes tend also towards fish and special sweets.

In Greece, special foods are made for Christmas, so many in fact that a book could be written on this topic. Although Christmas is not as important as Easter in Greece there are lots of traditional foods such as roast turkey. But sweets are especially traditional at Christmas in Greece. For example, on the island of Kythera, off the Peloponnesus, saharokulura are sugar cookies made for Christmas. Nut and honey sweets are also popular at Christmas throughout Greece. In the Peloponnesus, an elaborate Christmas bread is made called Christopsomo, made with fine white flour, sesame seeds, aniseed, orange, bay, cloves and cinnamon. It is decorated with walnuts or almonds, dried figs and sometimes eggs. Pihti, aspic of pig’s feet, is made for Christmas. Maties e saffathes is a Greek sausage made of pork, rice, garlic, cumin, and orange peel usually served before a big Christmas meal. It is first boiled, then fried.