A Tus­can feast

ELIS­A­BETH LUARD re­calls a fam­ily Christ­mas away from home, din­ing all’ital­iana on car­doons, bac­calà and bar­be­cued rab­bit

The Oldie - - CHRISTMAS GIFT GUIDE 2018 -

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

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