Like festive decorations collected over time, Christmas dishes in the Roddy household are a pick-and-mix selection of traditional British and acquired Italian favourites ...
The Christmas decorations sum things up. There are things I have brought back from Britain, Vincenzo from Sicily, and then bits from Rome – some sacred, one rude. A few are old and significant, but most twinkling and cheap, and one – my favourite – a huge pom-pom, I found. Most years a new decoration is added, and at least one lost or broken. This collection is put up differently every year: on a tree, on shelves, or dangled from the inherited candelabra-style light fitting (in which case they may stay up for the rest of the year, the pom-pom bonking tall people on the head).
Our Christmas food and traditions are much the same as the decorations: lots of things, from three places, that we arrange differently each year, hopefully without getting too precious. In the past I have made a traditional English Christmas lunch in Rome: faithful recipes, mostly from Jane Grigson’s English Food, adding fresh bread sauce smudges to page 237 annually. But these English meals have always had Roman and Sicilian trimmings, and vice-versa.
Last Friday morning, as a neighbour hammered a Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) figure to her front door as if he had offended her, Vincenzo’s parents dropped by to talk about this year’s arrangements. I’d planned to open the last jar of 2014 mincemeat – now so seasoned it is boozy – and make mince pies. Instead we worked through a bottle of prosecco and a family-sized bag of crisps while we made plans.
This year for Vigilia – Christmas Eve – as is traditional in Sicily, we will have baccalà (salt cod), but also Roman-style fritti – artichokes and anchovies. Then on Christmas Day, after mushroom paté on hot buttered toast, we’ll have another Sicilian family tradition: a big baked pasta. In essence, this pasta will be rather like Cinzia’s recipe published earlier this year, only enriched for a celebration with more sauce, tiny meatballs, peas and hard- boiled eggs, their yolks glowing richly.
There will be Christmas cake and its Roman counterpart pangiallo (yellow bread), a dense mass of dried and candied fruit, nuts and spices, painted with saffron glaze and baked. It looks odd, but is delicious – an ode to dried, wrinkly fruit, and excellent with sharp cheese.
At some point in the holidays I am going to put on Radio 6, pour myself a large sherry (cheers Grandma Roddy) and make my friend Carla’s pumpkin ravioli, a pasta case around a soft, blazing pillow of roasted pumpkin, ricotta, parmesan and crushed amaretti – so it is both savoury and sweet – served in a pool of sage butter.
We are also going to make porchetta: a piece of pork belly seasoned vigorously with salt, rosemary and fennel seeds, then rolled, tied and roasted until the meat, protected by swirls of fat, is incredibly tender and the skin ruptured into crackling that could cut your lip. Porchetta isn’t traditional in Italy at Christmas, but it’s straightforward to make, celebratory and generous, either feeding a crowd or lasting for days. Braised lentils are a happy sidekick, mellow and earthy. Lentils are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve in Italy, their shape reminiscent of coins, the idea being the more you eat, the more prosperous a year you’ll have. Sicilian-style spinach (with raisins and pine nuts), and Roman sweet and sour onions, like shiny baubles, make good companions.
Like decorations, the recipes included here are hung all over Christmas, but you could string them together into a single feast – in which case I would like an invite.
Of course, in all these plans something will get lost or broken. As a wise friend of my father’s used to say: “Keep expectations flexible.” It is sound advice – especially in times of joy and sorrow. However you hang your decorations and whatever you eat, I hope your Christmas is as happy as can be.