In the Mediterranean, where Christmas was born, food occupied a special place on the tables of Christians, and cooks invented many celebratory foods for the occasion. Likewise England, Spain and Italy have centuries-old Christmas food traditions. Here we’ll explore a brief sampling of treats from Christmases past, which you might add to your adventurous Christmas menu this year.
Christmas is a festive time in the Christian communities of the Mediterranean, although it was not observed earlier than A.D. 200 and it not until the Middle Ages that it became a popular holiday.
Santa Claus was originally St. Nicholas, the fourth century bishop of Myra (the modern Demre, in today’s Turkey), a town famous now for its luscious tomatoes and juicy Valencia oranges. As tales of St. Nicholas traveled to northern Europe, legends that formed the basis of the Santa Claus we know today arose, including the bearing of gifts.
In the Mediterranean, many of these gifts were boxes of sweets. In the Middle Ages, even kings concerned themselves with sugar. King Philip III (1578-1621), responsible for the final expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609, wrote to the Viceroy of Valencia from Aranjuez that he “consider that they should distribute more sweets and more turron among the poor of the city to celebrate Christmas.” It was with Philip II and Philip III that Spain began its prodigious periods of turron production.
Francisco Martinez Motino the master chef to Philip III, published the historically important Arte de cocina, pasteleria, bizcocheria y conserveria in 1611. His Christmas banquet serves up ham as an entree, along with olla podridas (a stew), roast turkey with its gravy, little veal puff-pastry pies, roast pigeons and bacon, bird tartlettes over whipped cream soup, hollow cakes, roast partridges with lemon sauce, capirotada (batter of herbs and eggs) with pork loin, sausages and partridges, roast suckling pig, with cheese, sugar and cinnamon soup, leavened puff-pastry with pork lard, roast chickens.
The second course consists of roast capons, thin hard-baked cake with quince sauce, chicken with stuffed escarole, English empanadas, roast veal with arugula sauce, seed-cake of veal sweetbread and livers of small animals, roast thrush over sopa dorada (highly colored soup), quince pastries, eggs beaten with sugar, hare empanadas, German-style birds, fried trout with bacon fat, puff-pastry tart.
A third course is chicken stuffed with bacon-fried bread, roast veal udder, minced bird meat with lard, “smothered” or “drowned” (ahogados) pigeons, roast stuffed goat, green citron tarts, turkey empanadas, sea-bream stew, rabbit with capers, pig’s feet empanadas, ring-dove with black sauce, manjar blanco, a dish made of chicken mixed with sugar and milk and rice, fritters.
In Catalonia, Christmas always saw the cook making escudella, which means “bowl,” the name of a big stew-soup, properly escudella i carn d’olla. At Christmas, the boiled beef and beef broth used for cooking thick macaroni may well have come from the aging oxen used to work in the fields and pull carts. Toward the end of autumn, when the farm work had been completed, the aging animal was shut in its pen and fed on cereals, hay and other grasses, fattened for sale and ultimately for slaughter.
Feasting in France, Italy
In 1189, King Richard the Lionhearted was host of a Christmas banquet for the king of France and Sicilian notables. Our description of this splendiferous feast comes from Ambroise, a Norman poet and chronicler of the Third Crusade. Ambroise says every dish was gold or silver and that there was not a dirty tablecloth in the hall, providing us some insight into the hygiene of that period when clean tablecloths are notable.
In Provence, we know that for Christmas 1515 the master sugarer Berthomeu Blanch prepared a very refined confit of tuna tongue preserved in sugar and stored in earthenware pots.
For the peasant, Christmas was a solstice festival and Christmas Eve was a magic moment when portents and signs of the future were read in the ashes of the great log in the fire. Many ritual foods have a long history, such as mortadella for Christmas. We know this because mortadelle is mentioned in the statutes of the Cathedral of Nice from 1233 as being made for holidays, such as Easter, Pentecost or Christmas, along with meat and beans eaten with eggs, cheese and ravioli pie (crosete siue rafiole). In Corsica, Christmas might see ventra, a pork stomach stuffed with Swiss chard, cabbage, onions and parsley.
Italy also has many foods and rituals surrounding Christmas, such as the ritualization of lasagna for Christmas. A famous preparation for Christmas Eve on the island of Burano in the Venetian lagoon is a risi e fasjoi col brodo de go, rice and beans with a broth made of goby. This isn’t the only famous Venetian dish with eel. Risotto de la “Visilia” is a special risotto made on Christmas Eve. It is unusual for two reasons: It is not cooked according to the risotto method, although it’s called a risotto, and it combines cheese with fish. The dish probably evolved from a simple fish pilaf, using, for example, goby. Then the eel was added and finally the beans. Eel is a traditional food for Christmas Eve in Venice. Grilled eels are popular, and it is said that the Doge Andrea Gritti died at age 84 on Dec. 28, 1538, after eating too many grilled eels on Christmas Eve.
Your family might enjoy a Christmas Eve as they might do it in Venice. A risotto a la “Visilia” would be ideal. Staying with an Italian menu for Christmas is different and exciting. There are two approaches, one from Naples and the other from Sicily. Both are labor intensive, but it is Christmas, after all. In Naples it would be a magnificent lasagna, while in Sicily you might want to try the tummala — a festive baked rice dish that you will find a challenge.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.