Saturday, December 17, 2011


Pandoro being warmed by the fire.
What will be on the table in Tuscany on the 25th December, Christmas day?  
Here is a pretty typical menu for this region: to start with a big plate of mixed crostini (little slices of bread with differing spreads). The most common of the crostini is the ‘crostini toscani’. So standard is the chicken liver and rabbit spleen pate on a Tuscan table, anytime of the year, that it is called the tuscan crostini. There may also be, to accompany it, tomato bruschetta, a tuna pate spread crostini, or maybe a mushroom crostini. 

Crostini Misti: toscani, tomato, mushroom, white fava beans. 
This can also be accompanied with a plate of mixed salumi (prosciutto, salami) and /or some sliced chicken galantine. 

Chicken galantine
Following this comes the primo (first course).  The most loved on this festive day is the tortellini in brodo, meat filled pockets of pasta bobbing in a meat broth.
Tortellini in brodo
Then comes the secondo (main dish), which is traditionally a bollito misto (mixed boiled meats) and / or zampone. In the mixed boiled meats there could be tongue, capon (castrated rooster) or chicken, turkey, lean beef and cotechino (a rich sausage typically from Mantua).

Bollito misto + cotecchino bottom left
The salsa verde is a must with the bollito misto. This is a tasty sauce made from bread soaked in vinegar until it becomes almost like breadcrumbs, mixed with finely chopped parsley, garlic and lots of good Tuscan olive oil. Finely chopped anchovies and the yolk of a hard boiled egg are also often added. 

Salsa verde
The zampone is scenographic - I always love seeing the whole pig’s trotter stuffed with meat on the table. Like the cotecchino, the zampone is typical of Mantova, but is a favourite in all Italy around Christmas time and is also eaten on New Year’s Eve with lentils. It too is a rich sausage, however the mixed pork meat (cheek, head, throat, shoulder) combined with spices and herbs is stuffed into the skin of a pig’s trotter. The zampone is thought to date to the beginning of the 1500’s in a town called Mirandola (in the Romagna area, north of Tuscany). The town, under siege by the troops of Pope Julius II, killed all the pigs so that the troops wouldn’t be able to have them, and so they minced the meat and stored it inside the trotters in the hope that it would conserve better.
For desert, the panettone is a must. Originally from Milan, the panettone dates to the renaissance period, although there are differing stories as to its creation and the origin of its name.  

One story is that this traditional Christmas cake dates to 1495 when the head cook of Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, having to many things to organise for the sumptuous Christmas dinner for the duke and his guests, burnt the cake that was for desert. A kitchen hand, called Toni, had made a cake that morning with the remains of the ingredients used for all the other meal’s dishes (flour, butter, egg, lime peel and some raisins. Toni presented his creation to the cook, who in desperation took the strange cake, in the shape of a large bread loaf,  to the duke’s table. Proving to be a huge success, all the guests wanted to know the name, to which the chef replied that it was ‘Toni’s bread’ or Pan di Toni, which morphed, over time,  into panettone
Another explanation for the origin of panettone is documented by Count Pietri Verri who described the ceremony of the breaking of bread that both rich and poor families would perform at Christmas time. The ‘ceremonia del Ceppo’ would be when the whole family would gather together and the head of the family would break a loaf of bread into pieces, enough for each member, so that all would share from the same loaf, symbolic of the strong family ties which bind all together. The poor man’s bread was made from millet (pane di miglio, called ‘pan de mej'), and the bread of the wealthy and nobility was white bread (called micca). It was decided however that on Christmas day everybody should use the same bread as in the Ceremonia del Ceppo, as a symbol of equality and togetherness. This bread, made from butter, pure flour and sugar was called the pan de’ sciori or pan de ton meaning the luxury bread. In 1919, Motta, the Milanese company, produced the first industrial panettone.

The rival to the panettone on the Italian Christmas table is the pandoro (see first photo). Originally from Verona, similar to its Milanese cousin, the pandoro doesn’t have candied fruit and it too has now taken on a national status. It is tall and cone shaped with, rather than a point at the top,  a narrower flat form in the shape of a star, typically eight sided. There is often a packet of icing sugar that comes with both the pandoro and the pantettone which is emptied into the plastic covering of the cake just before eating, and, with the cake still inside, is shaken up so that the icing sugar covers the entire exterior surface.

Another national must in this period is the torrone, which is a nougat, made from honey, sugar, egg whites and toasted almonds.  The name could be from the Latin torrere (to toast) refering to the almonds, hazelnuts and pasticcios. It comes in two forms, soft and chewy, and hard and brittle, a speciality of Cremona (Lombardy region), it is eaten all over Italy. A possible origin is also from the fifteenth century, served on the occasion of the marriage between Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti in 1441. 
Two types of biscuits typically from Siena are eaten all over the region at Christmas time - ricciarelli (soft almond paste biscuits typically shaped like a leaf -  the ingredients being peeled almonds, sugar, icing sugar, egg yolks) and cavallucci (flour, sugar, walnuts, aniseed, honey, cinnamon, and sometimes with candied orange ). The latter’s original name is berriguocoli and they were documented already by 1515 as being the sweet distributed by the consistory to his members during the festive season. The biscuits take on their current name due to the cavallai, the grooms at staging posts along the route, who would keep these as sweets due to their easily transportable nature and long life, were able to be conserved for reasonably long periods of time. 


Typically, Italians celebrate Christmas lunch rather than dinner. The meal is accompanied with red wine  and rounded off with some sweet dessert wine. Many Italians are back in business for a feast the following day, known as 'Santo Stefano'. There is no rest for the wicked. Buon Appetito and happy holidays to all! 


  1. Thanks very much for your research. The poetry of which reminds me of the wonderful passages in Byron's Don Juan extolling some delicacies of the table. Much better than what passes for quaint reviews from the "foodies" these days!
    Similarly, I was led last year to ferret out why it was a tradition handed down from my grandfather, who lived near Buffalo, to serve Bockwurst for breakfast at Easter. It turns out that that sausage was made typically at that time of year in Germany when they made Bock beer and with no refrigeration they ate it early in the day.
    Cheers and happy holidays to you also!

  2. That is very interesting, I love learning about the etymology of names, especially ones that we use so frequently without thinking about it. I look forward to the next time that I am in Germany at Easter when I can eat a Bockwurst sausage, that until your comment, I had never heard about.