It is time to break the news: there is not such thing as the “Feast of the seven fish” in Italy!
When I moved from Italy to Frederick, MD in 1991, I could not find espresso, cappuccino, fresh mozzarella or prosciutto. However, I could buy “Italian” garlic bread and “Italian” salsa Alfredo, both of which are NOT Italians. Then at Christmastime the fateful question would always come up: “Do you celebrate with the feast of the seven fish?”. The first time I almost felt embarrassed having to explain that I didn’t know about this “Italian” tradition. I just was not ready yet to break the news.
The tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve certainly comes from the Catholic religion, which forbids eating meat on the Vigilia (the word comes from the Latin verb vigilare “to watch or “to stay awake”) as a sign of respect and contemplation of the great event that is about to be celebrated.
There is indeed a tradition to celebrate the Vigilia (Christmas Eve) with the Cenone (big dinner) during which only fish dishes are served. Still, the tradition doesn’t dictate neither the number or the type of fish.
Most importantly, this tradition is very much eradicated in the Southern regions of Italy but not in the North where the pranzo di Natale (Christmas lunch) takes center stage and it is mostly based on meat preparations.
Well . . . I am from the Southern region of Campania and on My Vigilia‘s table there will be fish!
One of my most vivid memories of Christmas Eve at my parent’s home is the capitone (adult female eels) swimming in our bathtub. No, I am not kidding!
Eels should not be killed until shortly before cooking, so they were bought alive, kept in the bathtub until my father on Christmas Eve morning would chop them in pieces. And let me tell you, what a strange fish these eels are, they keep moving even with their heads chopped off!
Years after my dad had passed away, I went in Italy to spend Christmas with my brother who wanted to keep the tradition alive. So, bravely, he bought the capitone and then asked my husband to help with the task at hand. All I can say is that the scene would have made the show “America funniest video”.
I remember the day of the Vigilia as a day of waiting and expectations. My mother started her day early, she would plate the struffoli first, then prepare the pasta cresciuta (dough) to be fried around lunch time. We would eat these pizzelle (fried dough) throughout the day waiting for the cenone. This was the only day of the year when my brothers and I were not required to be home for lunch. The zampognari, shepherds from the mountains of Abruzzi, often came to play Christmas music on their bagpipes.
Late in the afternoon the festive table was set and it was finally time to start the feast. The menu included: seafood salad, fried baccalà, spaghetti with clams and spaghetti with anchovies and walnuts, capitone, fried shrimp and calamari, a baked fish, insalata di rinforzo (a marinated vegetable and cauliflower salad) and then dry figs, dates, nuts, nuggets, mostaccioli and roccocó, Panettone and struffoli.
After Midnight Mass, back at home, we would start the traditional procession open by my mom carrying a candle and followed by me (the youngest of the family) carring the statue of baby Jesus while the rest of the family was singing “Tu scendi dalle stelle” ( You come down from the stars). The procession ended with the arrival at the presepe (nativity scene) and the kissing of the Baby who was finally positioned over the crib of the nativity.
Some of these traditions are still part of My Vigilia.
Enough with the memories and back to My menu. Over the years I have substituted some dishes and I usually change my pasta dish from one year to the next. Also, since my two sons have lately shown a clear preference for a variety of small dishes (almost like tapas) and they love pasta, I have designed a menu with many antipasti (appetizers), and one main pasta dish.
I will post pictures and some recipes after the Holidays, for now here it is My 2011 Menu della Vigilia. Buon Natale a tutti ! Merry Christmas everyone!
Pizzelle – fried dough
Gamberoni in guazzetto – large shrimps in a spicy tomatoes-cream sauce
Insalata di mare – seafood salad with calamari, octopus, shrimps, clams and mussels seasoned with a lemon parsley vinagrette
Insalata di Baccalà – salted cod fish salad served warm with a yougurt-mayonnese- dressing
Seared scallops with radicchio and pancetta
Frittura di pesce – fried shrimp, calamari, smelts
Primo Piatto (First course)
Calamarata ai frutti di mare – calamarata is a cut of pasta in the shape of calamari rings, it is traditionally served with only calamari but I use a variety of seafood
Contorno ( Side dish)
Scarole di Natale – sautéed frise and escarole with anchovies, raisins and pine nuts
Frutta e dolci (Fruit and desserts)
Frutta secca – (Dry fruit – figs and dates), nocciole tostate (toasted hazelnut), assorted torrone italiano (Italian nuggets), My struffoli, My mustaccioli and Panettone.
Of course wines from My hometown will fill our glasses, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, both white wines. And My Limoncello will complement the erray of desserts.
What’s on your Holiday table?