My Christmas is a very noisy business. In Italy, you get the whole extended family descending, from the cousins endlessly talking about football, to the nonnas for whom any youngster needs feeding up with a couple (hundred) more mouthfuls.
It is definitely a crowded time, but I very much look forward to it. I usually spend Christmas in Rome, or sometimes Puglia where my family are originally from. Festivities start with the making of the nativity scene – the presepe – on 8th December. Each year we buy a different piece to put in the scene, so it grows bigger and bigger. It is symbolic of our efforts to stay together as we grow as a family. At the heart of every Italian Christmas is the food. Italian cuisine is regional and in Rome some of the key ingredients are herbs, ricotta, which we buy as regularly in Rome as bread and onions, anchovies (which traditionally featured as the main ingredient in garum, a sun-dried fermented fish sauce in vogue in Ancient Rome) and artichokes. The artichoke, this flower shaped vegetable is the holy grail of all Roman ingredients, and the ultimate liver cleanser. We do have meat and fish at Christmas but we also love light salads, clementines and mustards. You need something to keep the palate fresh. At the heart of it all is the desire to make every occasion an excuse for celebration.
Celebrations don't stop at Christmas. In Italy, New Year’s Day comes wrapped with the hopes of winning the lottery and a cotechino wrapped in pastry; on the 6th of January, Epiphany brings stockings filled with sweets to reward children who have been good and lumps of “coal” in the form of crystallized sugar to sweetly punish the bad ones. It’s all about hospitality. The style of casual entertaining that can be found in households all over the world is simply magnified in Italy. I believe this is the reason behind the international love for Italian cuisine: it is simply about togetherness. Quality time spent with friends and family, time and space disappears to give way to good conversations, with everyone cooking together in the hustle and bustle of a kitchen that, no matter how big or how small, is always the heart of a home.
So finally the words “E’ pronto a tavola” are uttered, and when the feast is over there’s a gratifying sense of contentment and of time well spent. If a Roman gives you the leftovers after a party – which really is what any sort of social gathering should turn out to be - it’s the definitive compliment and confident sign of the friendship. Buon Natale.
At Thyme in December I am preparing just such a feast, friends and family are set to gather and new friendships made in their extraordinary dining space. I can't wait, we are sharing the menu with you and a recipe to tempt you to join us ...
Mozarella in Carrozza & Ascoli-style Olives
For the main
Crispy veal cutlets, cauliflower, chestnuts
Ethical white veal sourced from Veau Beau
For the dessert
Almond biscuit & sweet wine semi-freddo
Cheese, membrillo, crackers
Photography Credit: David Loftus