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CHRISTMAS

The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast

If you want to do Christmas Italian style, here's what you need on the table for a truly festive feast.

The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast
Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Seafood

The evening meal on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia) is traditionally based around fish, as a meat-free day before the decadence of the 25th.

If you eat at an Italian home or restaurant on this date, you’re almost certain to be served a wide array of seafood in various forms.

Some families will serve seven types of fish as the meal is known as the Festa dei sette pesci (Feast of the seven fishes) and seven is a symbolic number in Christianity. But don’t surprised if nine or even more different dishes are served.

Photo: Liza Pooor on Unsplash

Eel is one traditional component, with cod, octopus, king prawns, oysters and other types of shellfish all popular choices.

These may be served grilled or raw, depending on where you are, as every part of Italy has different regional favourite recipes and traditions.

Crostini

Rustic crostini generally make an appearance on the Christmas table as a starter, with a topping such as paté, prosciutto and figs, or tomato and mozzarella.

If you’re going to any Christmas parties, expect to see plates piled high with different varieties – they make the perfect bite-sized appetizer.

Pasta

In Italy, you simply can’t have Christmas (or any other day, come to think of it) without a pasta dish.

The methods of cooking vary from region to region and household to household, but two typical staples of the Christmas dinner table are tortellini in brodo (broth) in the north, and lasagna or any other type of pasta al forno (baked pasta) in the south of the country.

Turkey

Yes, some families do eat turkey at Christmas in Italy, although it’s not usually the standard centrepiece and may feature alongside various other meats on an italian Christmas table.

Turkey is however becoming more popular as an option on Christmas Day, likely due to American influence. Other Christmas classics include stuffed chicken or capon.

Photo: Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Veal or ox

Traditional recipes using veal or ox are common alternatives to a poultry-based second course. Again, each region has its own way of preparing the meat and the accompanying vegetables, but two typical recipes are ossobuco alla milanese, or boiled ox, a dish native to Piedmont and Puglia.

Panettone or pandoro

On to dessert! The festive feast is finished off with a slice of panettone, a traditional domed Christmas cake made from sweet brioche bread, usually studded with pieces of candied fruit.

When the Christmas period rolls around you’ll see boxes of panettone stacked from floor to waist-height in every supermarket you enter, and your local pasticceria will no doubt have more elaborate versions flavoured with anything from chocolate to pistachio cream.

READ ALSO: Panettone or pandoro: Which is the best Italian Christmas cake?

Somewhat similar to a panettone, the pandoro is denser, richer, taller, and with a slightly more delicate flavour and texture.

True to its name (pandoro = golden bread), the cake is yellow-golden in colour. It sits higher than an a panettone and is baked into a star shape, with the base wider than the top.

A Christmas pandoro.

A Christmas pandoro. Photo: Nicola/Flickr.

pandoro is usually served plain with a dusting of icing sugar (often provided in a separate packet, to be added right before serving by shaking along with the cake in its cellophane wrapping to completely coat its exterior).

You’re likely to find the two cakes vying for prominence at any Italian Christmas dinner table. Some families will proudly declare a strong preference for panettone or pandoro, while others simply buy one of each to save argument.

Torrone

The name of this dessert means ‘big tower’ (though it actually comes from the verb for ‘to toast’) so you know you’re in for something spectacular. It’s made of honey and sugar and is basically a kind of nougat – the Toblerone chocolate bar was inspired by this sweet’s popularity.

The recipe varies depending on where you are in Italy. In the north you’ll often find varieties made with hazelnuts, while in the south almond-based recipes are more typical.

Biscotti, pastries and donuts

There are likely to be plenty of sweet treats at the end of the meal, enjoyed with coffee. In Naples, honey-covered dough balls (struffoli) are often on the menu; chestnut tortelli (crescent-shaped parcels stuffed with the sweet filling) are another classic, and biscotti get a seasonal twist with cinnamon or nutty flavourings.

Prosecco

Red or white wines are usually served to match each course, and after you’ve finished eating, it’s time to move onto the bubbles. Prosecco, or another variety of Italian sparkling wine, is one of the most popular ways to finish off the meal.

If you’d rather have your fizz as a pre-meal drink, rest assured that it’s equally popular at aperitivo hour.

Photo: Mel Maldonado-Turner on Unsplash

Bombardino

Literally translating as ‘the bomb’, this tasty drink is basically Italian eggnog. It’s made up of brandy, zabaione (egg cream), whipped cream and cinnamon, hails originally from the Lombardy region and is often the apres-ski drink of choice at Italy’s ski resorts. But it’s also perfect for a cosy Christmas afternoon by the fire.

If you don’t have those ingredients at your disposal, a caffè corretto is a simpler option: an espresso with a drop of something strong, usually grappa, but brandy or sambuca are also popular additions.

Buon appetito!

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FOOD & DRINK

Sagra: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

If you're visiting Italy in autumn, don't miss the many local food and drinks fairs held around the country. Here are some to visit this October.

Sagra: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

One of the best things about visiting Italy in the autumn is having the opportunity to attend a sagra, a type of harvest festival or fair centred around one particular food or drink item local to the town hosting it.

sagra has a fairly broad definition: it could last for several weeks or one day, and might consist of anything from a raucous celebration with music and dancing to a lone food stall with a few wooden benches. It will usually be hosted in a field or a piazza, and entry is free.

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

What all sagre have in common is the focus on eating and drinking fresh local produce, and the assurance that you won’t leave unsated.

Now, the good news is that October is by far the month with the most sagre, with a wealth of events taking place throughout the country that are worth seeking out if you’re in the area. So, here are some of the best sagre happening across Italy this month.

Campania 

Sagra della Castagna (chestnut festival), 7th-16th October in Calvanico, Salerno.  

Festa della Mela Annurca (‘annurca‘ apple festival), 28th-29th October in Valle di Maddaloni, Caserta.

Sagra del Cinghiale (boar festival), every Friday of the month in Dugenta, Benevento.

Emilia Romagna

Sagra della Salamina da Sugo (salami festival), 5th-9th October in Poggio Renatico, Ferrara.

Sagra del Vino Romagnolo (Romagna’s wine festival), 6th-9th October in Cotignola, Ravenna.

Sagra del Tartufo (truffle festival), 7th-9th October in Bondeno, Ferrara.

Sagra dell’Anguilla (eel festival), first three weekends of the month in Comacchio, Ferrara.

Lazio

Sagra dell’Uva Cesanese del Piglio (‘Cesanese‘ grapes festival), 30th September-2nd October in Piglio, Frosinone.

Enorvinio (wine festival), 2nd October in Orvinio, Rieti.

Castelli di Cioccolato (chocolate castles festival), 7th-9th October, Marino, Rome.

Sagra delle Tacchie ai Funghi Porcini (‘tacchie‘ pasta and porcini mushroom festival), first two weekends of the month in Bellegra, Rome.

A street seller prepares roasted chestnuts in Rome.

Roasted chestnuts are a staple of Italy’s October ‘sagre’. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Lombardy

Castagnata a Caglio (chestnut festival), 2nd-9th October in Caglio, Como.

Festival della Mostarda (mustard festival), 15th October-30th November in Cremona.

Fasulin de l’Oc con le Cudeghe (beans and pork rind festival), 29th-31st October in Pizzighettone, Cremona.

Sicily

Sagra delle Pesche (peach festival), 1st-2nd October in Leonforte, Enna.

Festa della Nocciola (hazelnut festival), 5th-6th October in Novara di Sicilia, Messina.

Funghi Fest (Mushroom festival), 21st-23rd October in Castelbuono, Palermo.

Piedmont

Sagra della Castagna (chestnut festival), 2nd October in Mathi, Turin.

Sagra del Ciapinabò (Jerusalem artichoke festival), 8th-9th October in Carignano, Turin.

Cioccolato nel Monferrato (chocolate festival), 16th October in Altavilla Monferrato, Alessandria.

Chocolate fair in Milan, Italy.

A number of chocolate festivals take place up and down the boot in October. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Tuscany

Sagra del Fungo Amiatino (‘amiatino‘ mushroom festival), 7th-9th, 15th-16th October in Bagnolo, Grosseto.

Sagra delle Frugiate (roasted chestnuts festivals), 9th and 16th October in Pescia, Pistoia.

Boccaccesca (local food festival), 14th-16th October in Certaldo, Florence.

Sagra del Tordo (local food festival), 29th-30th October in Montalcino, Siena.

Puglia

Sagra del Calzone (calzone festival), 14th-16th October in Acquaviva delle Fonti, Bari.

Veneto

Festa del Baccalà (cod festival), 30th September-2nd October and 7th-9th October in Montegalda, Vicenza.

Festa delle Giuggiole (jujubes festival), 2nd and 9th October in Arquà Petrarca, Padua.

Mele a Mel (apple festival), 7th-9th October in Mel, Belluno.

Festa della Patata (potato festival), all Sundays of the month in Tonezza del Cimone, Vicenza.

Umbria

Primi d’Italia (national first courses festival), 29th September-2nd October in Foligno.

Sagra del Sedano Nero e della Salsiccia (black celery and sausage festival), 15th-16th October in Trevi, Perugia.

This list is not exhaustive. Did we miss out your favourite October sagra? Leave a comment below to let us know.

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