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The Italian memories of Christmases past

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My grandparents were storytellers. The stories they told all centred around the emotions related to family, to struggle, to laughter and to traditions. There is no better time for storytelling than Christmas.

Over the past two years, I’ve contributed articles to Panoram Italia, an Italian-Canadian magazine, about Italian culture and community. Panoram does fantastic Christmas-themed issues that give me the chance to reflect on Christmases past. Last year I contributed the article “What we used to get for Christmas” which chronicled the gifts that Italians gave at Christmas back in Italy. Oranges, chestnuts, sugar dolls were all recalled with fondness and I am still in awe at the smiles those memories of Christmas gave to all the older Italians I interviewed.

This year, I wrote “Remembering our First Christmases in Canada“, an article that tried to recapture what Christmas in a new land with new traditions felt like for Italian immigrants. For some it was a hardship, spending Christmas without family, for others they were reunited with sisters and brothers. And, as usual, shared food was a key part of the memories.

Here’s an excerpt from the article where I got to share a story from my maternal grandfather:

For immigrants to Canada there are many new experiences and customs that colour the start of their lives in a new country. Christmas in Canada, away from the family, rituals and comfort of home back in Italy, was one of the first notable moments they experienced. Everything was new and unexpected, from the weather to traditions.

My grandfather often told us of his first Christmas in Canada in 1952, which was memorable indeed. While working for the Canadian National Railway, the company provided all the meals for the workers, deducting the cost of the meal from the worker’s pay. He looked forward to the dinner provided by CNR on Christmas Eve, expecting a festive feast that would help celebrate the special day. But on December 24, he was greeted with a plain meal of chicken soup. Disappointed and alone, he went to a grocery store to buy all he could afford: one chocolate bar and one pound of grapes to celebrate.

However, on December 25, he experienced what came as a surprise to most Italians: that Canadians hold their Christmas celebrations on Christmas Day. The railway offered a big celebration meal to all workers and my grandfather came to learn a new tradition.

Recipe: Torrone

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The Christmas season invariably starts with some baking in an Italian household. Mine is no different. I’ve been on the lookout for a recipe that somewhat resembles a “torrone” that my grandfather used to make for Christmas. In his basement kitchen he would mix up all sorts of ingredients and while we were never quite sure of the recipe, it always tasted good. After some trial and error, my mother and I discovered this recipe is a base of what my grandfather was cooking up. I imagine he also added some cinnamon and maybe even chocolate when he got creative but this is a pretty good start.

It isn’t your typical torrone you pick up at the store: a white nougat framed with wafers. It’s a homemade kind typical of southern Italy including Calabria and Sicily that is dark and more like a brittle. (“You know we were short on eggs back then,” is my mother’s explanation. You need eggs to make the nougat type which my grandmother always told me were traded for other needed food staples.)

Try it with hazelnuts or peanuts or even sesame seeds as a filler. Since it’s a type of candy, North American recipes would tell you that you need a candy thermometer. That may be true, but I’ve never seen a Nonno or a Nonna use one. If they can get the feel down for this recipe, so can you and I.

Torrone
300 grams almonds (lightly toasted). Use 150 grams whole and 150 grams chopped in half.
220 grams of sugar plus extra for coating
3 tablespoons of honey
100 grams unsalted butter

Recipe: Zia’s Biscotti

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Amid shelves of cookbooks and piles of recipe magazines, my mother’s house holds a small worn notebook full of recipes. The pages are torn, stained and layered with scraps of paper (usually the back of envelopes) that have recipes scribbled in ink or pencil. Sometimes there are instructions and no measurements. Sometimes ingredients and no baking instructions.

Sorting out what cookies get baked for Christmas is less about going through her recipe list and choosing and more about remembering. “Those ones with the nuts on top.” “The round ones that Comare brought over.” “Dad’s favourite.” Proper names for cookies are useless, we all just associate them with people, places or times anyway. This little biscotti recipe lives on a scrap of paper with the simple heading: Zia’s Biscotti.

Zia, meaning Aunt, could mean, well, anyone in the family or extended family. It doesn’t matter though, they came from family and have always been a staple. These biscotti are light and crumbly. I’ve tried several recipes from various books (versions with harder dough I find too dense, those made with butter seem to taste overwhelmingly of butter) but keep coming back to these ones for their simplicity and their texture. You can swap out the almonds for different nuts or other ingredients like chocolate chunks or cranberries, or even add cocoa to the dough for a chocolate version. It’s a great base that’s easily adapted.

Anyway you make them though, these biscotti are classic, just the memories we all hold dear of our family and favourite cookies.

Zia’s Biscotti
6 large eggs
500g sugar
500g flour
500g almonds
zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla

Send a virtual panettone or cookie tray to your friends and family with these Italian ecards

Merry Christmas, Buon Natale! With one month to

Recipe: Calabrese Cracked Olives (Olive Schiacciate)

Calabrese olives

In the basement there’s a treasure. No matter how much I despised trekking into the basement to fetch something for my mother, the truth was that a trip to the cantina (cellar) meant stepping into a magical room full of our favourite foods and a year’s (or more!) worth of work. Yellow lupini beans, red crushed tomatoes, brown mushrooms, all gleaming from behind their glass homes. One of our favourite cantina inhabitants was, and is, olives.

Calabrese cracked olives, named as such because of the way they are cracked (smashed, really) open, were always a staple in my house growing up.  Served as a snack with soppresata, cheese, taralli and other antipasti, we stocked up on jars of this green gold in the cantina. The recipe for preserving olives is held mainly in the minds of older Italians, much like the recipe for preserving green tomatoes I shared here previously. You can find recipes online with a similar name, but they are often written in Italian and not quite the same.

In North America, green olives are picked at the end of September to about the middle of November. In Europe, the harvest is a bit later and into the winter. Preserving olives is another one of those food events that calls for a big gathering of family if you are going to make a lot, just like making sausages or canning tomatoes. Part social event, part necessity, Italian food preservation has always been an integral part of life for southern Italians. These days, the family gathering part is more important than the preserving, but the results – good food and some fun – are the same.

Some tips for this recipe: you’ll need some time and some patience, smashing the olives can get messy and don’t let the olives get brown or mushy at any point, then they’ll lose their taste and allure. Finally, be sure to add these to your pantry or cantina collection, for olive lovers this is a great way to have a fresh olive taste all year around.

Calabrese Cracked Olives (Olive Schiacciate)
1 case green olives
1 lb salt (1 box)
2tbsp fennel
2-3 tbsp dried oregano
2-3 tbsp dried basil
1 tbsp granulated garlic
olive oil
hot pepper flakes to taste

Select a case of olives where the fruits are still firm and are a medium-large. If the olives are very fresh, you may need to allow them to sit for a few days in a cool place such as a cantina or garage. The olives are ready to process when they break open easily with a bit of pressure.

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Found: 1906 Vintage Italian Postcard (some things always stay the same…)