After all the years I’ve lived in Italy, my family in the States has gotten addicted to certain Christmastime treats and woe betide me if I leave them behind when I come home for the holidays. So I found myself racing around the Rome airport the other morning in search of a substitute for the panettone I’d left sitting on the kitchen counter. Luckily, I found one at the airport (at about ten times the price I’d paid in town) just before I climbed on board the plane. No matter. A tradition is a tradition (even if it is apparently made with gold dust instead of flour).
Herewith, my family’s top Christmas treats, Italian style.
Panettone. A sweet fluffy bread of Milanese origin, panettone is ubiquitous this time of year. It is sometimes (but not always) shaped like the dome of a cathedral and often (but not always) quite tall (up to six inches or so). It can also take the shape of a star or an octagon. It is often, but not always stuffed with candied fruit and raisins. Or chocolate or cream. Usually served with a glass of spumante (or, in my case, toasted with butter and a cup of coffee). Pretty indistinguishable from the pandoro (origin Verona) , although that usually is covered with powdered sugar (sometimes the panettone is too). Not to mention the Easter version, the colomba (meaning dove) which also tastes more or less the same but is shaped like a bird. Okay, whatever it’s cake. And you can eat it for breakfast with no guilt. Because it’s Christmas!
The world’s biggest chocolate bar. I’m pretty sure there’s a more official name than this for the gigantic candy bars stuffed with almonds or hazelnuts that start showing up on store shelves round about this time of year. Suffice it to say they are a huge hit back home and usually only last a day or so, despite being A FOOT AND A HALF LONG!
Torrone. Otherwise known as nougat, torrone is made from caramelized honey and egg white with some sort of nut (almond or hazelnut or pine nut) mixed in. Fun fact: torrone is thought to date back to the Roman Empire and today nougat variations can be found throughout the Mediterranean Basin. Less fun fact: The chewy version is tastier than the crunchy version but if you’re not careful, it’ll take your filling out faster than you can say “Turkish Taffy.” In fact, as it turns out, torrone and Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy are distant relatives, Turkish Taffy being what’s known as a short nougat (who knew?). Not having given it a thought for 20 years, I was highly disturbed to discover, in a 3 minute research project, that Turkish Taffy has not been manufactured since 1989. The Bonomos–descended from Sephardic Jewish emigrants from Turkey in the 1800s–all moved to Florida to retire.
Cotechino. This is a cured sausage that hails from the town of Modena and is traditionally eaten at New Year’s with lentils (signifying money because they look like small–unbelievably small–coins). Cotechino is basically a casing stuffed with all of the bits of the pig you’d rather not think about eating–skin, fat, muscle fibre–and highly spiced. It apparently dates back to the early 15th Century when Pope Julius II besieged the city of Mirandola near Modena (or maybe Gavello, reports differ) and the ingenious citizens started stuffing leftover pig bits into pig skin in order to survive. A close relative and contemporary of the cotechino is the zampone, which involves stuffing the same ingredients into a pig’s foot (zampone means ‘trotter’).
I realize that I’ve probably not done my best to sell the humble cotechino. It’s a bit slimy, to be sure. But very tasty indeed and I can’t imagine New Year’s without it.