20 December 2015

LIFE: Christmas in Italy

CHIAVARI, Italy – Christmas in Chiavari is a very special time. The streets of town are full of sparkly lights, red poinsettia decorate shop windows, and you might even find a Christmas tree or two in the in some of the small piazzas. It’s a time of family, food, music and the wonder of miracles. 
Christmas in Italy
But pretty as the sparkly lights and poinsettia are, they are not what Christmas in Italy is truly about. It is about celebrating the birth of Christ. Most holidays in Italy center on church designated holy days, and some of the holidays are re-worked versions of pagan holidays celebrated by the ancient Romans.  

While Christmas isn’t a re-worked pagan holiday, back in the days of the Roman Empire the Romans did celebrate during the period we now think of as our Christmas season. Their holiday was called Saturnalia and it was celebrated from December 17th to the 24th.  It was a whoopee-doo time of feasting, drinking and dancing in the streets.
 Sorrento, Italy
We may not celebrate Saturnalia any more, but not all of the old ways are lost. One really old tradition that still survives in some parts of Italy is the burning of a Christmas log on Christmas Eve. At one time burning a log or tree stump was a clever way to disguise an older pagan tradition, one that symbolized the final ending of the old year by burning away whatever evil it had had in it. Out with the old and in with the new.

The ritual went like this: the head of the household would put a log in the family fireplace, say a prayer, put a coin on the log and set the whole business on fire. The youngest member of the family would then have to sing a song or recite a poem before being allowed to pick up the coin. The fire was usually left to burn while the family went to midnight mass, symbolically allowing the Virgin Mary to enter their home and warm the baby Jesus.
Zampognari in Rome
Another very old Christmas tradition is that of the zampognari (bagpipers).  It too dates back to the ancient Romans.  It is based on a legend of shepherds visiting the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, and after seeing the baby Jesus, they took out their bagpipes and played. Still today, in remembrance of that moment, if pipers see a public nativity scene they will stop in front of it for a few moments of quiet contemplation and respect before they move on.  

But perhaps the most famous of all Italian Christmas traditions is the nativity crèche. The first manger, as we think of mangers today, was created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. He used real people and live animals so his illiterate congregation could understand the true meaning of Christmas. Over the years the idea morphed into using figurines.
Christmas at the Vatican 
During the holidays Christian churches in Italy, as well as banks, post offices, train stations and other public buildings used to all have nativity crèches on display. Unfortunately there seem to be fewer of them these days. Even kids used to work together to recreate a manger in the main entrances of their schools, ready to greet visiting parents and relatives.   

In the days leading up to Christmas many Italian families make it point to visit the churches in their town as part of the late afternoon stroll, the passeggiata.  You often see grandparents with their grandchildren standing in front of the crèches in local churches as they tell them the story of Mary and Jesus. Even shoppers rushing around buying gifts for the holidays will often take a break and pop into the closest church to see its version of the baby Jesus and the stable in Bethlehem. 

For Italians Christmas is a religious holiday much more than a gift-giving holiday. The gifts come later on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany.  I   remember my father, who grew up in Italy, talking about how thrilled he was to find an orange or some candies from the Befana – the good witch in his Epiphany stocking. 
La Befana  
Like Santa Claus, the Befana also flies from roof top to roof top bringing gifts, but instead of riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she rides a broom, or a donkey, or maybe even a bike.  But however those oranges got to my father’s stocking, it must have been quite a trip getting them up to that hill town of Piansano in northern Lazio in those early days of the 1900’s.

Many Italian Christmas traditions like gift bringing witches, bag-piping shepherds, mangers large and small and tree burning ceremonies are a mix of religious and popular customs that date back thousands of years. As the years pass, each region develops its own special way of celebrating Christmas that has a special meaning to the people who live there, but the focus is always on the importance of the holiday – the celebration of the birth of Christ.

The Italians know it’s different in other parts of the world where a jolly old man, a guy with a simple one night mission, nine cute reindeer and a single catchy tune has just about wiped out the religious aspect of Christmas. They don’t want it to happen here and you often here them complain about the foreign assault on their culture. If you think about it, even a Christmas tree in the piazza is a big concession to non-Italian Christmas traditions.
 Buon Natale Everyone
But traditions evolve and who knows if at some point we’ll start to see pictures of old Santa twirling a forkful of spaghetti or spooning into a bowl of minestrone soup.  Italians being Italians will certainly figure out some way to make him their own, part of the family – the most important element of Italian life, and I’m pretty sure that is one thing that will never change.  

Buon Natale tutti. See you after the holidays.

17 December 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Panettone Bread Pudding

CHIAVARI, Italy – I made a big mistake this week. I’ve been talking a little too much about panettone, and now I want some. I actually had the foolish idea that this year I was just not going to buy panettone. I was going to resist. But then the shops and bakeries started piling them up on the counters and . . .  well as Mae West used to say, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.” I gave in.
 Delicious Panettone
Over the course of the holidays I usually buy two or three panettone, some to eat, and at least one to use for this super simple, but truly delicious bread pudding. Most of the deliciousness comes directly from the rich and eggy panettone, and the pudding bakes into an extra silky custard with a buttery golden brown top.

To make it even more festive, I’ve added a recipe for an amaretto sauce to drizzle over the top.
 Panettone Bread Pudding

1 ½ pounds of panettone bread, trim crust and cut or tear into chunky pieces
8 large eggs
1 ½ cups of whipping (heavy) cream
2 ½ cups of whole milk
1 ¼ cups sugar

1. Lightly grease a 13″ x 9″ baking sheet. Arrange the cut panettone in the dish.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, cream, milk, and sugar to combine.
3. Pour this custard mixture over the panettone pieces, using the back of a wooden spoon to press the pieces into the liquid. It is important that they are totally submerged. Allow the bread to soak for 30 minutes.
4. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Bake until the pudding puffs and it set in the center, about 45 minutes (depending on the size of the dish that you chose to use). Allow to cool slightly.
5. Spoon the bread pudding onto a plate and drizzle with warm amaretto sauce.

This recipe comes out best if you use a shallow pan.
Amaretto Sauce Starts Like This

1 cup whipping (heavy) cream
1 cup whole milk
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup amaretto liqueur
4 teaspoons cornstarch

1. Bring the cream, milk, and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently
2. In a small bowl mix the amaretto and cornstarch to combine and then whisk the into the cream mixture

NOTE: The sauce can be made up to 3 days in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Just pop it in the microwave for a couple of seconds, or warm over low heat before serving.

13 December 2015

LIFE: St. Francis and the Creche

CHIAVARI, Italy – December 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the day many Italians set up their nativity crèches. The crèches are an important part of the holiday, and are kept on display until January 6th, the feast of the Three Kings or Magi.
Pope Francis
My friend Andrea told me he spends December 8th with his four-year old nephew Luca. They put together the pieces of the family crèche, and while they are doing that Andrea tells Luca the story of the nativity. As Luca’s godfather, it is part of Andrea’s responsibility to participate in Luca’s religious instruction, by teaching him about the birth of Jesus.

I don’t think the story I’m about to tell you is the same story that Andrea tells his nephew, as this is the story of how the crèche came to be, but I think you might find it interesting anyway. It is the story of the creation of the Christmas crèche and it starts with St. Francis of Assisi.

In the year 1223, St. Francis, was planning to celebrate Christmas in the town of Greccio, an old hill town of the region of Lazio. He had planned to say midnight mass at the chapel of the local Franciscan monastery, but he soon realized that the chapel would be too small to hold all the people of the town. So he found a space near the town square and set up an altar there.
Rivisondoli, Abruzzo 
The nativity story is taken from the accounts of the birth of Jesus as recalled in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke's narrative describes an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds, who then visit the humble site where Jesus was found lying in a manger, his bed a feed trough for cattle.

Matthew's narrative tells of "wise men" the Magi, who followed a star to the house where Jesus dwelt, and seems to suggest that the Magi found Jesus two years after his birth, rather than on the exact day. Matthew's account does not mention angels or shepherds, while Luke's narrative is silent on the Magi and the star.

The Magi and angels are often displayed with the Holy Family and the shepherds in nativity scenes, although there is no scriptural basis for their presence.

Nonetheless, St. Francis wanted to convey the story to the people of Greccio, knowing full well that like most people of that time, they were illiterate, and therefore not be able to read the story as set down by Mathew and Luke.
Agliate, Brianza
As he wanted to commemorate the birth of the Infant Jesus in the most serious and solemn way possible, but still give the people an idea of the event, he decided to prepare a manger. He took his inspiration from a recent trip to the Holy Land, where he visited the place believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

After he got permission from the Pope, he put out bundles of hay, and placed the hay along with an ox and a donkey near the side of the outdoor altar he had prepared. Then he called the people together and with his makeshift manger in the background, he told them the story of the birth of Jesus,

Today, we still put out Nativity scenes, sometimes under the Christmas tree, or as most do here in Italy, on a table. But no matter where they are placed, they are strong daily reminders of that very special night.

Listed below are four towns where you can see a living crèche this holiday season, but there are many more towns throughout Italy where the nativity is recreated. If you are visiting Italy during this period, check with the local tourist office for events near you.

Living Creche, Greccio, Rieti
The home of the first living nativity.
24 December at 9:30PM; December 26-28 and January 1-6 at 5:45PM.   

Living Creche, Morcone, Benevento
January 3-4 from 3PM to 7:30PM, and at 6PM and 8PM the story of the Navitity.

Living Creche, San Biagio, Mantova
December 25/26/29 , aand January 5/6/12 from 3:30PM to 7PM

Living Creche, Dogliani, Cuneo
December 23-24 at 8:30

Let us keep alive the true meaning of this season.

10 December 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Panettone - King of the Christmas Cakes

CHIAVARI, Italy – The countdown to Christmas has started and grocery stores shelves are filled cookies and cakes and holiday goodies of every type.  
In Milan, Panettone is King of the Christmas Cakes
Every region has its own particular Christmas specialty like struffoli in Naples and panforte in Sienna, but in the north    Christmas is not Christmas without panettone, that big pillow of a bread studded with juicy raisins and other good stuff.

Legend has it that panettone was developed in Milan in the 1400’s. That’s probably true. For the rest of the story, that it was first made by a baker named Tony to impress his girlfriend - well, that's more fiction than fact. What’s is true though is you'd be hard pressed to find a Christmas Day meal in northern Italy that will not end with a slice of the raisin rich eggy bread and a flute of sparkling Prosecco wine. 

Because panettone tastes so good, Italians tend to forgive it for being such a plain Jane. There's not much you can do to glam up this humble sweet bread, but you have to give the fashion conscious Milanese credit for trying.

Here's a collection of photos showing some of the more elegant panettone offerings on the market during the holiday season.

 It Starts Out Like This
There Can Never Be Too Many Panettone
And Babbo Natale Too!

 Panettone All Dressed Up
The Kids Will Love This

Grandma's Favorite
 This is Special

Let's Get This Party Started
Panettone and Prosecco - Perfect!