- Food & Wine
Christmas and the festive dishes of Lombardy
Christmas is approaching and alongside religious celebrations, there are many other beloved traditions: buying presents, decorating a tree or making a crib, waiting for the arrival of Baby Jesus or Father Christmas and his reindeer with the little ones, until they fall asleep, exhausted...
Among the customs that have been handed down from generation to generation, the culinary traditions that are renewed every year for Christmas dinner in Lombardy have a clear character that includes customary and symbolic dishes that mustn't be missing.
What are the ingredients of Christmas dinner in Lombardy? In Lombardy and northern Italy in general, the Christmas table is set for dinner on the 25th, and the rich, abundant and varied Christmas menu of Lombardy has just about everything!
Despite the apparent regional homogeneity, the dishes on the Lombardy Christmas table vary greatly depending to the area. We find an abundance of starters with cured meats, fish, stuffed pasta dishes and risottos, boiled and roasted meats, sauces and mustards, vegetables, cheeses, dried fruit, nougat and the king of Christmas desserts, panettone.
Christmas antipasti in Lombardy: with cured meats, imagination wins
Popular tradition recommends Lombardy's cured meats: sausages (wrapped in a skin of animal intestines) and other products (whole cuts of meat, salted or dried, flavoured and cured) that bear the PGI or PDO marks or are champions of the slow food philosophy, such as Violino di capra della Valchiavenna.
So called because of its shape, the Violino is handcrafted from goat's leg and shoulder, following traditional methods. In the province of Sondrio, in the municipalities of Chiavenna and throughout the Valle Spluga, at Christmas and New Year, it is cut directly at the table while resting it on the shoulder, in a movement that is reminiscent of a violinist at work.
Stuffed pasta: the most popular first course on the Lombardy Christmas table
A traditional Christmas lunch in Lombardy would not be complete without stuffed pasta, in capon broth or with sage and butter. One of the most famous first courses served in broth is the agnolini mantovani filled with meat (beef, salamella, pancetta) which has been famous since the days of the Gonzaga family. Also from Mantua are the pumpkin tortelli with a sweet and sour filling (pumpkin, mustard and amaretti biscuits).
Originally from the Bergamo area, casoncelli can be stuffed with minced meat, sausage, breadcrumbs, eggs and Parmesan cheese, but also with potatoes, salami and spices.
The bertù, half-moon ravioli from Valseriana, filled with cotechino sausage, parmesan and eggs are also very tasty.
Mixed boiled meats and roasts, royal second courses for the festive meal
According to Lombardy's culinary tradition, meat is a must on the Christmas table. The classic recipe for one of the most famous festive dishes, Milanese mixed boiled meats, which is called 'el less' in dialect, includes the most diverse cuts of meat: rump, tongue, and tail of beef, calf's head, pork sausage.
The preparation of the boiled meat is long, but the process is easy. Soak beef and veal in boiling water containing onion, celery, carrots and salt and leave to cook for more than 2 hours. The head and cotechino sausage are cooked separately, each for a further 2 hours, and combined at the end.
What should accompany Lombardy boiled meats? Strictly speaking, mostarda di Cremona, in which the sweet taste of cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, mandarins and figs, whole or in pieces, is combined with the spicy flavour of mustard. Mantuan mostarda, made with quinces and whole pears, is also excellent.
It wouldn't be Christmas without panettone, in Lombardy and around the world.
Interestingly, there is also Japanese panettone, made with azuki beans, candied yuzu and butter, flavoured with tea from the Land of the Rising Sun! The worldwide renown of panettone - a leavened cake made with eggs, butter, sultanas and candied citron and orange peel - is undisputed. Since the 15th century, every self-respecting Christmas lunch has featured it.
Legend has it that the young Toni, a scullery boy in the kitchens of Ludovico il Moro, made up for the lack of dessert on Christmas day, which had unfortunately burnt, by bringing to the table a dessert he had cooked himself using the leftovers in the pantry. El pan del Toni (meaning 'Toni's bread'), the panettone, was a success!
Today, the typical Christmas cake from Lombardy is produced industrially and by-hand at very high levels. There is even an organisation called the Academy of the masters of sourdough and Italian panettone, set up in September 2020, to protect the tradition, history and quality of this wonderful Christmas cake throughout the world.