Buon natale e buone feste. Happy Christmas to everyone.
I have many readers from USA who are probably wondering if for La Vigilia (Christmas Eve) I will take part in the so-called “Feast of the Seven Fishes.”
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition which is strong among Americans of Sicilian and Southern Italian background and where they strongly adhere to eating seven different fish presented in seven different dishes. I n the past few years I have noticed that this “tradition” is beginning to creep into Australian Culture.
I remember first hearing about this tradition when Mary Taylor Simeti and I were interviewed by Jane O’Connor for an article in the December 2010 issue of Italianicious. Mary is a highly respected and widely published writer on Sicilian cuisine and culture. Neither of us has ever found any trace of this tradition in Sicily and I have not experienced this with Sicilians in Australia. We agreed that it may be an example of how a little known custom may have travelled with Sicilian emigrants and taken on a greater significance in America. It is not the norm in Australia yet and we ought not confuse what is fact and what is fiction.
What is traditional in Sicily is usually traditional in other parts of Italy. And it is the custom to share a celebratory meal with family and friends on Christmas Eve. And yes, they do eat fish because traditionally in the Catholic Church it was a day of abstinence (when no meat was eaten on Fridays and specified holy days). Over time this meal has become the Christmas celebration. Midnight Mass follows and it made sense for Italians, who love food, to spend the time eating while waiting for Mass. They sleep in on Christmas day and eat sparingly. For Christmas lunch my parents had brodo and tortellini or polpettine (broth with tortellini or small chicken meat balls). They were too tired and replete from the night before.
And why is seven the significant number? That’s anybody’s guess, and it is fun to speculate. There are so many things were seven is magic number: Is it the number of sacraments or the seven virtues or deadly sins? I also know that there are Seven Hills of Rome, a dance of the seven veils. I could go on.
In my book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking, there are many recipes that could serve for Christmas Eve. I quite like the idea of cooking several courses and one could easily begin with a light seafood salad or a marinaded fish (thinly sliced and raw like a carpaccio) and progress to a lightly cooked whiting or a seafood pasta and then a heavier braised fish dish made with large thick slices of firm fleshed fish. Hopefully you will select sustainable fish for your recipes.
Traditionally eel and baccalà or stockfish are eaten on Christmas eve in many parts of Italy. Those of you who have a copy of my book Sicilian Seafood Cooking will find recipes for these.
There are also many recipes that could be useful for this holiday period on my blog. Here are only a few; click on the links below:
PESCE ALLA GHIOTTA (Sicilian Fish, a recipe to satisfy the gluttons)
Mussels with Sambuca– anice flavoured liqueur)
GAMBERI AL COGNAC (Prawns cooked with cognac or brandy)
BAKED BACCALÀ (Baccalaru ‘o fornu – Sicilian and Baccalà al forno- Italian)
FISH BRAISE WITH TOMATOES, GARLIC, RED CHILLIES AND ANCHOVIES
RICH FISH SOUP FROM SYRACUSE COOKED IN THE OVEN
CASSATA (It is perfect for an Australian Christmas)
CASSATA DECONSTRUCTED – a postmodernist take on Sicilian Cassata
CHRISTMAS DOLCI and DOLCETTI and Pistachio Shortbread Biscuit
GIUGGIULENA (also CUBBAITA) – a brittle Sicilian toffee of sugar and honey with sesame seeds and almonds