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A slice of Italy

There is something in the air. Christmas is just 10 days away, and across the country cooks and chefs are getting ready for one of our best food festivals ever. And though our enduring image of Christmas is that of a roasted bird all stuffed with goodies, there are many other ways of celebrating it. In Kerala, for instance, the dishes that mark Christmas are vastly different from those in Goa. And in Italy, where food is as much a passion as in India, the Xmas table is laden with food that we don’t usually associate with Christmas.

But the Christmas menu of Italy is as varied as it is vast. Not surprisingly, chef Davide Cananzi, who has just opened a new Italian restaurant in Calcutta called Il Sogno, gets ecstatic when he talks of Christmas back home.

“Cooking starts well before the festival. Indeed there are many items which are a must on the dining tables during this season, and quite a few have to be prepared well in advance,” says chef

Davide. All kinds of Italian cold cuts —such as dry duck, pork sausages or the culatello, which is a Sicilian style of dry raw pork ham — are kept ready days ahead, he says. “Then there are these pickles such as the giardiniera — assorted vegetables marinated and preserved in oil and white wine vinegar — and veggies such as eggplants, shallots, sun-dried tomato,” he exults.

The chef has been working on some traditional dishes for the season. The borlotti and corn ragout filled rotolino and braised lamb chops with a mixed bean stew remind him of home. The weather is cold at this time of the year, and Italians like their aromatic stews and soups to ward off the cold.

“This is the time for all kinds of soups, such as the cannelloni bean soup. Zuppa, especially an aromatic seafood broth, is just right for the season,” points out chef Pronoy Gomes, the sous chef of the Italian restaurant La Brezza in Jaypee Greens, a beautiful hotel on the outskirts of Delhi.

Soups, of course, are just a small part of the multi-course meal that Italians have on Christmas day. “Usually there are 8-10 courses, starting with appetisers such as cannelloni, then lentil soup, lasagne, salad, capon or turkey, vegetables, risottos, spaghetti, arancinis (rice balls) and crepes,” says Rakesh Rana, chef de cuisine at San Gimignano, the Italian restaurant at The Imperial New Delhi.

The rich feast is often laden with various meat dishes because, as chef Rana explains, people tend not to eat meat on the day before Christmas. “Typically, on that day they would rather dine on seafood — usually fried calamari and fish or prawns with some dipping sauces,” he says. Chef Gomes adds that aragoste — lobsters, especially when they are baked — are among the other favourites.

Christmas in Italy is also celebrated with pastas of various kinds. “Traditionally, lasagna is served on Christmas because of the belief that it brings luck,” says chef Rana.

Then, of course, there are all sorts of delicious and rich desserts — such as a Christmas pudding flavoured with cinnamon, stuffed with raisin and served with brandy custard, and cassata, a wet sponge cake with cream, dry fruits and raisins that’s eaten chilled. The dessert menu can include the buccellato, a fig and nut filled cake, and cannolo, a Sicilian pastry with a cheese filling.

The rich tiramisu cake — prepared with mascarpone cheese, coffee and a sponge cake — is something that never fails to warm chef Davide’s heart. His own favourites during the season include Il Cacciucco, a seafood broth from Tuscany, and zuppa Gallurese, a bread and cheese dish from Sardinia. He loves them because he learnt them from his mother when he was 13. “Whenever I cook these dishes, I use the same recipes,” he says.

Clearly, for chef Davide, Christmas is a time for nostalgia. And, of course, it is also a veritable feast — for the eyes and the soul.

Traditional duck confit with potato and polenta olive sushi (serves 1)

Ingredients:

1 duck • 200 ml olive oil • 10g garlic • 5g thyme • 25g shrimps • 70g potato • 50g polenta • 25g olives • 25g butter • 50ml milk • 2g rosemary • 3g dill leaves • salt and pepper to taste

Method:

Clean the duck. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the duck breast, chopped garlic and thyme. Add seasoning and cook over very low heat. When done, keep aside. For the salad, boil and cube the potatoes. Blanch the shrimps. Put them together. Add chopped dill and seasoning. Now boil the milk with rosemary and butter. Add the polenta and seasoning. Cook gently till the polenta is soft and fluffy. Line a tray with the polenta, stuff it with chopped olive and roll it (shaping it like sushi). Set it for a while. Serve duck confit with polenta sushi and potato shrimp salad.