A Tuscan feast
ELISABETH LUARD recalls a family Christmas away from home, dining all’italiana on cardoons, baccalà and barbecued rabbit
Christmas is a dish, it seemed to me when my children hadn’t yet acquired families of their own, best savoured elsewhere. Somewhere that, to put it delicately, didn’t remind my beloved children – or their father – of what someone said or did last year, or the year before that. Good reason, therefore, to beg or borrow (or, at a pinch, rent) an unheated, family-sized dwelling somewhere we could all go native. With the exception, that is, of non-negotiable Christmas pudding.
Which is why, 20 years ago, when the younger generation were moving away from home and I knew this might be the last Christmas we’d all spend together, I borrowed a house in the mountain village of Sommocolonia, high in the Garfagnana. It’s an unfashionable region of Tuscany that runs from the olive-oil town of Lucca to the Alps via the marble quarries of Carrera.
Arriving in darkness at an empty house and even emptier store cupboard, we lit fires in the bedrooms and coaxed the stove in the hall to puff hot smoke through a hole in the roof. There were consolations. Lighted grottoes, each housing a Christmas crib, stood along the winding road that led upwards from the valley, between dripping chestnut woods. And as if to welcome strangers, all the occupied houses in the village were wearing their Christmas trees in the street.
We were eight in all. Five family and three of the children’s friends, one of whom, already successful in the music business, had brought a bottle of 1880 Tokaj, the most delicious wine any of us had ever tasted. Spirits rose further when we discovered the mobile shop still open for bread and prosciutto. For the rest, we allowed ourselves two days to fill the larder before everything closed for the 12-day holiday. All Italy shuts down from 25th December to 6th January, when the Befana, the Epiphany witch, arrives on her broomstick to beat bad children and drop presents down chimneys for others, a female Santa and role model for my daughters.
The following morning we consulted nonna Maria – grandmother by reason of age and respectability rather than grandchildren – keeper of keys and provider of advice to the many foreigners who’d bought and restored tumbledown houses in the village. She advised us to set forth immediately for the weekly market in Castelnuovo, an hour up the valley towards the snowline.
The market was bustling at midday, with snowdrifts pushed to the side and stalls piled high with Christmas goodies: boxes of dried figs from Turkey, crates of oranges from Seville, tomatoes from Sicily, sacks of walnuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts to be roasted in their shells. And, heaped on a trestle table, huge furry bundles of cardoons for the fasting supper of the Eve. The seller’s advice was to trim off the leaves and discard the heart, leaving just the stalks, then chop and cook as you would artichokes or the rosettes of wild thistles that Tuscans add to the bean pot in spring. Tuscans are known as mangiafagioli – beaneaters – to the rice-eaters of Milan and Venice. This is not a compliment.
By far the longest queue was for home-churned butter, cut in thick slabs from the block by a brawnyarmed farmer’s wife. Bread, thickcrusted and baked in a wood oven, was sold in two-kilo loaves. Tuscany’s staple grain food is baked without salt so it dries but never goes mouldy: once softened by soaking, it is the basis for ribollita, a soupy dish of vegetables cooked in broth from the boiling pot.
On our return, laden with stores, Maria arrived in the kitchen to inspect our purchases. The Sicilian tomatoes met with pursed lips and a shake of the head. Unthinkable. The fasting supper, she explained, was not only meatless but also tomatofree, since the colour red attracted witches and devils, who were allowed by the angels to make mischief on the eves of all feast days. As it happened, she continued more cheerfully, there was no need to spend time in the kitchen when we could enjoy the company of our family and buy our baccalà ready-soaked and
our antipasto in jars from the supermarket in Barga, our nearest shopping town. And since the supper was to be meat-free, she recommended artichoke hearts
sott’olio, baby onions in agrodolce, mushrooms marinati. We followed her advice, adding spinach lasagne (no meat) and cardoon stalks prepared in white sauce (no cheese).
Back home, I followed la nonna’s instructions for the
baccalà: bring to the boil from cold, drain, dress simply with warm olive oil, garlic and parsley. Maria, however, feeling she’d eaten too much salt cod on too many fast days, announced a preference for Scottish smoked salmon.
After the fast came the feast. For a meal to qualify as festive there had to be at least five courses, eaten from the same plate, with the same cutlery, served in strict succession: antipasto (prosciutto and assorted
salumi), pasta (at least two, maybe three), primo (boiled), secondo (roast) and finally a rich dessert, il
dolce, preferably deep-fried from the best pasticceria in town. This for us was Lucca, two hours’ drive back down the valley, an expedition that produced sliced-to-order salumi, which came with instructions to serve with a mustardy fruit pickle,
mostarda di Cremona, gnocchi (to be sauced with melted butter and sage), and ravioli stuffed with mortadella (two minutes in boiling water, butter).
As for our secondo – forget the primo, nobody’s perfect – the wealthy citizens of Lucca ordered their festive roasts in advance from their favourite rosticceria, for collection on the day. Out-of-towners such as ourselves were obliged to roast our own, over charcoal in the yard. This arrangement, Maria explained, was what foreigners called a barbecue but was really just a grill balanced on bricks – all that was available when nobody owned an oven. Now that even the poorest, including Maria, had ovens, she’d be roasting a turkey crown on special offer from Barga’s supermarket.
I joined the long queue at the game dealer’s, where the choice was between hutch rabbit, barnyard chicken, gosling (prickly and bony) and guinea fowl. As with all food queues in Italy, there was fierce disagreement on cooking methods – oven- or spit-roast, charcoal or brushwood? For the marinade, mint and sage were pronounced essential, rosemary and thyme were allowable, but garlic, like the colour red, was thought to attract witches and devils, and forbidden on a feast day.
When my turn came, collective attention turned to numbers. The decision – no argument – was that a pair of guinea fowl and one fine fat rabbit would yield the right number of joints. Italians never carve at table, so ‘jointability’ was key. ‘You’ll be eating Italian?’ Of course. In an instant, beast and birds had been cleaned, split, flattened and handed over, with advice to tell my man – a barbecue is man’s work – to light the charcoal well ahead so the flames died down and the meat cooked slowly and sweetly on its bed of coals. And when it was cooked, e basta, job done. No self-respecting Italian – let alone a Tuscan – would dream of eating a fine roast with anything but bread.
We prepared everything exactly as we’d been told. Of course we did.
This year I might revive the tradition with seven grandchildren – teenagers all – and find or beg or borrow a place where dinner is cooked over charcoal in the yard, all good children (and grannies) get their presents from a witch, and it’s cold enough to wear your socks in bed.
Top: Coreglia Antelminelli near Lucca Above: baccalà or salt fish
Christmas pudding, British-produced salumi and artichoke hearts in olive oil