My memories of Christmas growing up in Italy are happy ones, filled with food and family. In the days before Christmas, relatives would arrive in hoards, piling like sardines into my mother’s cosy kitchen, many having brought their signature, traditional, home-cooked dish to add to the festive banquet.
The preparation of the Christmas dinner was dependent on a time-honored ritual of division of labour, each family member bestowed their respective culinary roles to prepare the delectable 12-course feast. My role was always to prepare the roast beef, cabbage and leek ravioli with my grandmother. I would be arm-deep in pasta dough, flour covering every visible surface, my sleeves rolled up as I worked the dough until the consistency met my granny’s strict standards. For every ravioli I made, I’d eat two!
My mother meanwhile, would be preparing the more refined dishes - aspic, beef carpaccio, spinach flan with cheese fondue, scallops gratin, insalata russa - typical of the Piedmonte region in which we lived.
Delicious smells would meander their way upstairs as my father prepared the wood oven outside for the year’s preferred meat, to be served with a plethora of carefully prepared accompaniments, from spicy sauces to salsa verde and mustard.
Unlike in Scotland, we Italians traditionally favour lamb roast or shin of beef, rather than Turkey. My father’s homemade salami was his greatest pride, and would be served atop rich and runny, steaming parmesan mashed potatoes. Christmas Dinner would span for several hours, our stomachs stretching but always allowing room for the final course - Italian Panettone served with double cream and a sprinkle of coffee.
Afterwards, we would retire to the fireplace, our stomachs bloated and tight accompanied by a feeling of woozy satisfaction. My father and the men of the family would huddle round a table in the dimly lit Taverneta, laughing loudly and sharing anecdotes until the small hours. They would sip wine from their respective vineyards as they played Scopone Scientifico, a traditional Italian card game that would rouse even the most reserved relatives to jovial quarrel. Myself and my young cousins, high on joy and Christmas candy, would play in the snow until our fingers burned with cold, before settling to re-heat and roast chestnuts by the crackling fire.
So when people ask what, for me, is the true meaning of the Christmas Season, it’s very simple. It’s the culmination of all the little family traditions that create the precious, timeless moments. For me, Christmas simply wouldn’t be Christmas without the food. But it’s the power of the food to bring families together that creates the true meaning of Christmas. Buon Natale!