For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

January 2, 2013

Christmas Italian Style

It’s 12 am. She’s running the show like she has done it forever, like she’s on autopilot, like she could do it in her sleep, so it seems. She’s giving orders, she’s checking, double-checking and triple checking each little detail. Everything has to be perfect. And so it is. In fact, no one makes a move without her consent. She’s the Mother, an Italian Mother – a concept unto itself. And it’s Christmas Day, December 25th.

Amazing Italian women in three generations.

 I find myself in the midst of Christmas hullabaloo at my Italian family’s mountain house in Valdipetrina, close to Città di Castello, in the region of Umbria. It’s my very first South-European Christmas.  Back home in Finland, this same scene took place the day before so I’m feeling slightly disoriented. Here, there’s no snow, no Christmas tree, but the entrancing smell of the oven roasted capon fills the house with its exquisite odors and leaves me no doubt that it’s Christmas. Different country, different day, but the heart of the celebration is universal.

* * *

Paola, the Mother, had started preparations early that morning. Even though I could’ve slept for what seemed like an eternity upstairs in the huge warm bed, a higher force made me wake up and carried me straight to the kitchen, for Paola had promised me the night before that she’d teach me how to make salsa verde according to an old traditional family recipe. Not even the sweetest sleep could ever top that.

Knowing my Italian mamma, I had a feeling that I’d walk into a kitchen where everything would be pre-prepared and fully under control. I was right. “Buongiorno Edith! Did you sleep well?”, I got the most loving embrace and kiss of the cheek. The tiny woman cooking in her pajamas, wearing a flower printed apron was the most adorable sight ever! I felt privileged to have been included, to be part of their Christmas tradition, to be there doing what has been done each year, each Christmas Day for as long as the family has existed.

After a quick shot of coffee it was time to get busy, “Edith take out your notebook and pen, you shouldn’t miss one single detail”. Yes Chef! Each step along to way to the final product was precise and handled with utter care: the fresh homegrown parsley, the core ingredient, had been washed and dried and gently swaddled in a white linen towel; the eggs were boiled and peeled and placed in an old porcelain bowl where three eggs fit like a glove; the anchovies lay in oil in a plastic container; the jar of capers was already opened and had a little silver spoon leaning against it.

Paola started picking the parsley leaves and asked me to remove the little hard yoke from the inside of the egg white, “you want to use only the leaves to get the bright green color, and the eggs, we’ll use it all, but in different phases, you’ll see”. I could only acclaim the accuracy of her technics. This recipe has been done exactly like this for decades, it was palpable. Her hands worked with admirable confidence, but on the same time, she was careful to make no false moves, as if her mother-in-law, the woman who had taught her, would be watching her every measure like a hawk. Also, now it was her time to teach. She made sure that the little Finnish girl far away from home would learn it all perfectly and punctiliously.

When all leaves were freed from stems, she took out a curious little devise, a type of manual grinder indispensable for the preparation of salsa verde. Little by little, she pushed down the greens leaves into the grinder, rolling four times clock wards and one time backwards, four times clock wards, one time backwards, repeating the movement over and over. Slowly, like falling snowflakes painting the landscape white, the vivid green grinded parsley covered the bottom of the glass bowl. Halfway through, she added olive oil “this will keep the parley from oxidizing” I smiled and nodded and made a little footnote to the recipe in my notebook. First she added the anchovies, then the capers and finally the egg white one by one, and then again she continued grinding the parsley. As a final step, she mashed the yokes by fork, not the grinder like she had done with all other ingredients. She mixed the yokes to the salsa and continued amalgamating the yoke by fork “I don’t want to see any yellow color, I want it smooth like silk”, so decisive, so determined. And I knew the secrets and all the little tricks and the detailed instructions.

Just as I thought that I had received the most precious Christmas present of all and I sat down by the dining table to fully digest the experience, a priceless scene took place right before me. So far, the kitchen had been the mother’s territory. The other family members, the father and the daughter, were busy wrapping presents and lively arguing to which of the two cars the gifts would be put in. They were suddenly very curious about what was going on in the kitchen. Honestly, I don’t think anyone could’ve resisted that heavenly smell. The capon was done and Paola had taken it out of the oven to rest before cutting. It tempted each living creature. Its power on the hungry souls in the house was undeniable. It was mother’s turn to take off the apron. It was the father’s job to cut it. As soon as she was gone, Massimo and Cecilia were like two little mice around the porridge.

“Vai via! Vai via, cazzo!” the father tried his best to keep his hungry daughter away from the crispy skin. But she couldn’t resist and neither did he have the heart to stop her. The two certainly took care that not a single little piece would go to waste. “Don’t eat the bird!” I heard Paola shouting from the shower upstairs. Safe to say, she knew her loved ones well. Massimo and Cecilia are too busy drooling over the delicacy that they didn’t hear a thing. Besides, I was the amused spectator of a lovely sit-com; I didn’t want them to stop. “This thing, I love it deeply. It’s dense, almost sticky, it’s my favorite, what can I say” Cecilia’s fingers and mouth were all caked with the caramelized capon drippings. “This is the best, best part of all, enjoy!” she fed me with a juicy piece of skin drizzled in jus. I felt perfectly at home to say the least. I knew that despite the “wrong” day of celebration, I’d be eating extremely well this Christmas, but after that teaser I was absolutely thrilled about the culinary experience I had in front of me. A very merry and delicious Christmas indeed!

* * *

It’s 13 pm. Only a few hours to go.

In Umbria, cappelletti a.k.a tortellini are an integral part of the Christmas Day lunch. I got my own gluten-free ones just for me!

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