Updated: May 19
The Christmas cuisine of Italy is as varied as its regions. Travelling from north to south, the diversity in culture, cuisine and environment is revealed. So too are the delights of festive and winter food. Italian cuisine cannot simply be whittled down to a one page menu.
My intention with my very recent trip to Italy was to discover the piatti e cibi tipici natalizi - the typical Christmas dishes and food throughout Italy.
I researched the festive cuisine wherever I went. I asked the taxi driver, B&B hosts, chefs, relatives and new acquaintances. I perused restaurant menus, produce markets and grocery shelves.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the number of non-vegan dishes are prolific. Winter often induces richer dishes of ragu and meats. And Christmas is often all about indulgent fare. This is true of cultures throughout the world.
But as always, I’ll mostly focus on the vegan or vegetarian options. Mostly. Where I mention non-vegan foods, it's to give you a general overview of the traditional cuisine. In many cases, I was lucky enough to taste veganised versions of traditional dishes: Bagna Cauda and Insalata Russa at Mezzaluna restaurant in Turin; Strudel and Canederli at Park Hotel Azalea in Cavalese; Pizzoccheri and Pandoro at La Colubrina in Milan; Cioccolata Calda at Grezzo Raw Chocolate and cheese and deli meats at iVegan in Rome.
This blog only skims the surface - but I hope it will deliver an intriguing perspective on the flavours, winter produce and dishes throughout Italy.
In mountainous far north regions such as Trentino-Alto Adige, the cuisine reveals Germanic, Hungarian and Austrian influences. This minestrone of cultures is perhaps not what the average tourist would expect of ‘Italian’ food. Here we can unravel this limited perception - to a more enlightened understanding of the diverse culinary profile of each region.
In the winter environment, one requires heartier foods to keep warm in these extreme weather conditions. Imagine polenta and dumpling soups. Cabbage, sauerkraut and potatoes. Apples in both savoury and sweet recipes. Rye flour and mushrooms. Rice and barley. Caraway seeds.
Bread dumplings floating in broth (Canederli) from the cucina povera tradition. Potato fritters (Tortel di Patate). Brezeln (soft pretzels). Apple strudel. Zelten (a Christmas fruit and nut cake). Trecchia mochena (sweet braided pastry). Vin brule to warm you up in the cold air.
In the Piemonte and Lombardia regions I found many similarities - particularly with the relatively wealthier and commercial centres of Milan and Turin, which share a richness of cuisine.
Risotto. Polenta. White truffle. Rich ribbon egg pasta (tajarin) and filled pasta parcels like agnolotti. Cream, butter. Elegantly presented chocolates - gianduiotto. Chocolate. Hazelnuts. Choc-hazelnut (gianduia). Bagna cauda. Insalata Russa. Farinata (chickpea flour slice).
Pizzoccheri (buckwheat short ribbon pasta with potatoes and cabbage). Cabbage and radicchio. Leafy greens. Panettone (Lombardy, the birthplace of this Christmas treat, which is also beloved throughout Italy). Marron glace - sugar glazed chestnuts. Tortelli filled with pumpkin.
Geographically, central Italy spans an enormous area. So I will just pin-point the places I visited on this specific winter trip.
Heading south, artichokes begin to appear in markets, the continuation of leafy greens (Tuscan kale, cabbage and fennel). Dried porcini and truffles. Beans pop up on menus (fagioli all’uccelletto) and classic ‘Ribollita’ rustic soup. Toasted bread with olive oil (fettunta). Pici eggless pasta.
Perhaps the most recognisable Tuscan Christmas sweet is Panforte and its peppery twin Panpepato, with candied melon. Cantucci and Ricciarelli biscotti abound. Sweet vin santo to dip biscotti into.
Winter heralds the carciofi season - and markets burst with bright green and purple varieties and menus announce Roman and Jewish versions. Bitter puntarelle. Chicory in long bunches. Romanesco broccoli. Persimmons. Cardoons. Spaghetti and pizza slices.
Rome’s typical Christmas treat is Pangiallo - a spiced fruit and nut Christmas ‘cake’.
The produce continues in a similar vein to Lazio - with cardoons, chicory and leafy greens. Pizze fritte. Struffoli, a fried Christmas treat, either eaten as a snack or served in a large, honey-drenched mound. Nut praline bars coated in chocolate (croccantini) in the province of Benevento. Sicilian marzipan shaped into fruit. Mostaccioli - chocolate coated spiced biscotto. Zeppole, a rustic fried doughnut. Pizza di scarole (a savoury pie stuffed with cooked curly endive). Cartellate pastry in Puglia. Paste di mandorla biscotti.
With all of Italy’s diversity - there are still many shared food highlights from north to south.
Roasted chestnuts on street corners, smoky and fragrant. Piles of bright citrus, fruit and leafy greens. Candied dried fruit and nuts. Coffee - short and black. Panettone dressed up in pretty packaging. The sweet comfort of cioccolato caldo (hot chocolate). Liqueurs in all shapes and sizes. Always wine, crusty bread, olive oil, chocolate, pasta.
Italy and its diverse cultural cuisine enlightens and inspires. Winter and the festive season provides another experience beyond the peak summer season. I hope this encourages you to explore new flavours and recipes for a vegan friendly winter and Christmas in Italy.