It is still almost a month away, but Christmas is already making itself heard, loud and clear! It’s blaring from the alluring tv commercials, it’s flirting with us from the red satin-dressed shop windows, and it’s tempting us with the traditional, mouth-watering menus dangled in front of us by local restaurants. Food, all-important subject around which every meaningful festivity rotates here; no food – no party!
Italians love to eat well, and tradition stands them in good stead, because from north to south, every region has typical dishes which delight the palate, not to mention the many seasonal delicacies which accompany particular periods of the year.
Emilia, along with its twin -Romagna, is unrivaled in that sector, a region which can boast some of the best cuisine in the whole of Italy. We’d like to say world, but maybe we are slightly biased! But…..to get back to us, and more precisely, Bedonia, many of great-great-grandma’s family recipes have been lovingly preserved and handed down from one generation to the other, and are still producing their magic.
So Christmas can be seen in the home-made and artisanal spongata, torrone, anolini and so much more. What are they, you’re thinking? Well, spongata is a sort of pie, a filling of walnuts, hazlenuts, almonds, pinenuts, currants, candied apricots and dates, nutmeg, cinamon, vanilla, and orange and lemon peel soaked in aniseed liqueur…..all enclosed within two layers of sweet crust. Tradition dictates that they be made no less than ten at a time, and back in the day, the many baking tins needed for the operation, were passed from one house to the other, and the village women would all chip in and help each other to chop and prepare all the ingredients, and roll out the pastry. The pies would then be carefully wrapped and either given as presents, or stored away- they can be preserved for months. It was a labour of love (food always is around here!), but it was also considered a social thing, when people had time to be together and share. Nowadays, there are still some undaunted cooks who like to keep up good habits, but needless to say, today’s way of life doesn’t allow for much elaborate and time-consuming baking.
Luckily for the busy (or lazy!) people amongst us, there are some artisanal laboratories in the area, in which this speciality is produced. The result is almost that of the home-made kind, not necessarily cheap, but considering the ingredients, the ratio price/quality (and finding it nice and ready of course!) is good.
Going back to labours of love, the second speciality mentioned, falls without any doubt into that category. Home-made torrone, or nougat in English, is the fruit of a long and laborious procedure which, as with the spongata, was strongly related to social life, or what is known as “firossu” here; a gathering of family/friends/neighbours, who would collaborate for hours on end, helping with the heavy mixing, chatting, eating and drinking in the process.
In order to make torrone, two cast iron stoves were usually used; one to produce the glowing embers, and the other on which to actually cook the mixture. Torrone cannot be cooked on a live fire, because it would burn easily, turn yellowish, thus ruining the flavour. It has to be snowy white. So the embers from the first stove go into the second one, on top of which a “paiolo” – the traditional copper pot, is inserted. Then honey is warmed till flowing and runny (better if local), finely ground white sugar is added, together with many stiffly whipped eggwhites and vanilla esssence. The stirring begins. A long wooden stick is used for this operation, which goes on non-stop for what seems an endless time, and gets increasingly difficult as the hours go by. Halfway through the procedure, man-power (or powerful women!) are called for because the mixture becomes extremely consistent. After approximately seven to eight hours, the nuts are incorporated, and the torrone is finally ready. The nuts (hazlenuts, almonds, or even a mix of the two) need to have been previously toasted and freed of their skins before using, hence the preparation will have begun a couple of days beforehand. At this point, low, wide trays are lined, first with greaseproof paper, then with thin wafers brushed over with lemon juice, and the mixture is turned in. It is rapidly flattened with lemony hands while still pliable, and left to cool down.
As before, very few people are still doing this, however there are some lovers of tradition out there who are adamant on carrying on the good work. But some small locally-based firms produce an excellent substitute for the home-made version, so yet again, our piece of torrone at Christmas is assured!
As for anolini…….that’s a whole new article. Keep reading!