I can barely contain myself you guys. This post is about Christmas, food, and Florence – 3 of my, oh probably, 5 favorite things in the ENTIRE world. So please excuse any rambling, incoherence and emotional outbursts in advance.
Well let me start with this assertion, Florence is the best city in the world and Christmas is the best holiday. It’s been proven. Last year we took you on a cheerful walk through the city, but left out something pretty huge – food. So this year, join us as we eat our way through the season guided by some of our favorite Florentines and adopted Florentines. With only 3 weeks until Christmas, we have some serious chowing down to do!
Kellin, our go-to Florence guru, over at Select Study Abroad, suggests starting with some traditional zampone. When it comes to the salami/sausage family, I think the world generally agrees on a don’t ask don’t tell policy. Zampone, however is a bit more in your face, as the casing is the pig’s lower leg (hoof included) itself. This flavor-packed limb is typically served over lentils and especially at New Years. These lovely limbs will be filling grocery store shelves in no time this season. Most Italians buy it from the grocery store pre-cooked. Remove the wrapping and simply boil for about 20 minutes. Serve hot.
Can’t help but envision a poor dismembered Porky Pig when eating your zampone? Try cotechino instead. It is very similar to zampone, but the casing is a bit easier on the eyes. It’s a favorite of our favorite Maple Leaf Mama in Florence, so you know it’s good!
Looking for a good base to your zampone and/or cotechino? Our Maple Leaf Mama (Michelle), recommends her recipe of mash pot and lentils. Simply and deliciously, Michelle mashes and boils lentils with celery, onion and bacon. We have a feeling you’ll be wowwing even the nonne this season with this one!
Contrary to my inclination to consume as many cured meats as I can on Christmas, Italians traditionally go for fish. The meal is rooted in the Catholic tradition of observing Christmas Eve as a day of fasting in preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ. Well, I think it’s safe to say that most of us have already started the birthday party Christmas Eve and have let the fasting go by the wayside. And, although the Italians cling to the tradition of fish, they aren’t exactly fasting either. In fact, many regions in Italy (mostly in the south) celebrate what is called the feast of the 7 fishes in which 7, 9, 11, or even 13 fish dishes are served. Soooo I doubt anyone at the dinner table is left hungry. Nonetheless, don’t be surprised to find a fish where the turkey would go at the Christmas dinner table.
According to our friend Claudio (a talented DJ in Florence), fish doesn’t have to be the only secondo on your holiday table. He recommends bollito, a hearty northern Italian stew, concocted by using just about everything but the kitchen sink. Cotechino, beef, veal, vegetables and more, simmer together to create a heaping pot of warm-your-soul stew for a chilly December evening.
Check out my favorite Italian-American (and total girl crush), Giada de Laurentis’ recipe for bollito here.
Panforte vs. Panettone
For dessert, Claudio cuts to the classics and my favorites – panforte and panettone. These sister sweets are staples to the holidays. With similar names, they are understandably confusing to the average foreigner, but in actuality, they couldn’t be more different.
Panforte is strictly very Tuscan. Originating in Siena, Panforte translates literally as strong bread, thanks to the strong spices used. The consistency of panforte is much like fruitcake. Popularized during the crusades, weeping wives sent their husbands off to war with panforte packed in their bag. History claims it was to feed the soldiers, but I argue that it doubled as a weapon (one throw and panforte could definitely take out an infidel). Today we see candied cherries (red) and citron (green) mixed in the panforte for a dash of patriotism (or holiday cheer, you pick!).
Panettone, on the other hand, is a fluffy, delightful, sweet bread from Milan that is a staple in every Italian home for the holidays. Come December, colorful boxes of panettone (with ribbons for handles) are stacked in the windows of every grocery store just waiting for you!
Craving a dessert a little less pre-packaged? Our friend and ex-pat Georgette is a fan of castagnaccio, a chestnut cake. Straying from typical Italian dolci, castagnaccio frequently features herbs such as rosemary and fennel, to balance out the sweet raisins and dried fruit. While spices vary, the staples of the cake remain chestnuts and pine nuts.
Click here if you’re feeling ambitious and want to give it a go!
Whoa, whoa, whoa, I know what you’re thinking. Cenci is for Carnivale. True, but let’s not pigeon-hole this one. These delicately fried and sugared bits of heaven come out to play during the Christmas season as well. In particular, these tasty treats await the arrival of La Buffana on the Epiphany (I guess this Christmas witch prefers cenci and Vin Santo over cookies and milk).
I don’t trust myself to fry anything, but if you’re feeling adventurous, follow these few easy steps!
Finally, my favorite. Cantucci and biscotti are essentially synonymous. These sweet, dry, cookies vary in flavor and type, but are typically infused with a delectable almond extract. When served in the mornings, they are perfectly complimented by a cup of coffee or tea. In the evening, after a meal, Italians use a strong dessert wine called Vin Santo to aid them in downing these crumbly cookies.
Not to toot my own family’s horn, but I have never met a better batch of biscotti than my sister Colleen’s. She has nailed the “drying process” and “twice baking” of these tiny treats just as the people of Prato, where biscotti originated, intended.
So Colleen, in an attempt to please my readers, I am sharing your super secret biscotti recipe with the world. I hope you don’t mind, but I think it’s time that the internet knew about this gem. Click here for Colleen’s Biscotti Miracle Recipe.
Well my tummy is now growling, I am blaring Pavarotti’s Adeste Fideles on my Spotify and listlessly scrolling through Instagrams of Florence’s Christmas lights. I’m spiraling, and fast.
I wish all of you the most magical Christmas season and eat, eat, eat your heart out!