Christmas Italian style, I love it. It is still old fashioned, traditional and atmospheric.
I like nothing more than to go into nearby Lucca and wander up and down the narrow cobbled streets looking at the wonderfully warm and Christmassy window displays.
I love it because it doesn’t start too early. No tacky cards on display from August. Nope. Here it starts after All Saints’ Day which is on 1 November.
Whilst there aren’t really any shopping bargains to be had, it is lovely to go into a little, traditional shop and see your purchased goodies carefully wrapped up into the most glorious package usually at no extra charge. The assistant asks “è un regalo?” Is it a present? One nod of the head sees them bringing out richly coloured wrapping paper and ribbons galore for curling into divine, festive ringlets.
I have said so before but I love to take a delicious Italian hot chocolate in winter. It is thick and rich. You eat it with a spoon, there’s no drinking this stuff and you can take it with or without panna (whipped cream).
My current favourite is cioccolato fondente con menta e senza panna, that is dark chocolate with mint and without cream, it is too luxuriously fabulous to describe, and is always finished too soon.
Before Christmas Italians go to friends houses to wish them best seasons withes. The process involves drinking (well it does in my zone) a warm mandarin punch or two and eating a little cake.
The nativity is on display in every Italian home. Some towns have lavish displays. Ours, an old hilltop town, prefers a living nativity where, two days before Christmas, the locals, dress up in historical costume for displays of life in olden times. As you wind your way up and down the tight medieval streets, you can see traditional crafts, sample old local foods and partake of a vin brulée or two whilst hoping to get a glimpse of Mary and Joseph and the “real” donkey as they make their way up to the church on the summit.
Food-wise, nothing is really prepared in advance of Christmas in Italy. I was always used to starting my Christmas cake in October and being well prepared for our festive eating but in Italy, Christmas day food is prepared fresh in the morning. In my 11 years living here, I have spent 7 of them living in an Italian home with an Italian family and Italian traditions.
Christmas lunch menu was usually, crostini, tortellini in brodo followed by lasagne. I used to roast a turkey and serve vegetables but many households have roast pork which is eaten a lot. There is often also another pasta with a sauce before the meat course.
Pudding was usually simple with an up-market panettoni or pandoro and coffee.
Santa or Babbo Natale is fairly new here in Italy. The Christmas tradition here was and still is, La Befana who comes on Epiphany to give the good children toys and the naughty children, coal.
I live in a tiny village on top of a mountain. There are few people here and we are surrounded by nature. There is no sound except for the birds, or sometimes after rain we can hear the river at the bottom of our mountain when it’s full and flowing fast.
This part of Tuscany is dramatic with snow-topped mountains standing majestic against a deep blue springtime sky.They change colour throughout the year, green in spring and summer, with the grey tips bare and grand. In autumn the colour starts to change to a rich gold and purple as the leaves lose their fresh look and the mountain heather shows itself.
One of the most spectacular natural phenomena that I love about this part of Italy, is the wonderful perfume that floods the air in late May and early June. There is nothing like it, exotic, mysterious and intense. You know that you live in a special part of the world.
This area is particularly famous for farro, an ancient spelt which is wonderful as a salad in the summer and, for me anyway, even more appetising in the winter as a thick and warming soup made with vegetables and beans and served with a spot of garlic bread. It is also a great place to find porcini mushrooms, with mushroom hunters keeping their “patch” secret and if asked if they found a lot after a day in the woods, they usually answer, “I found just enough to eat,” meaning not really. I have seen locals exclaiming in delight at a huge porcino on display outside of a local green grocer’s. Picking it up and holding it high for all to see. People are known for their porcini finding prowess and it is quite an honour to be considered a good finder.
We are also famous here for chestnuts. We are surrounded by chestnut woods and from late October on wards, the literally fall from above, as you drive or walk down the roads, they just drop from the trees. Chestnut flour is milled and can make a rich pasta, which is particularly good for those who can’t tolerate gluten. Goodies such as castagnaccio, a heavy flat cake type of dessert, made with pine nuts, rosemary and a hint of orange, or necci, a chestnut flour pancake usually served as a rolls, a bit like a cannelloni but stuffed with creamy ricotta. I love the castagnaccio, although it does look as though it is made from chocolate and so disappointed me with my first taste. The necci, I prefer without the ricotta, otherwise it’s too heavy.
This area is a spectacular one for walking and hiking. Everywhere you look there are unbelievable views. You can see for miles, even, on a clear day the island of Elba or as far as Sardinia. The best time to come walking is between April and June, then September to November. July and August are just too hot to be comfortable and the winter months mean that you can’t go up high due to the snow.
This is a truly stunning place to live, and I am grateful every morning when I wake up and look out of my window in the sky at those mere mortals below.
Here in Italy, you are risking life and limb if you sweat. Not just full blown running down your face I’m too hot, sweaty, but the slightest hint of sweating and you risk the possibility of getting the notorious “influenza” and expiring.
I remember one summer’s day. It was beautifully hot. I was with my ex. Italian partner and we decided to do a spot of shopping in a local house and home type store.
We arrived and parked the car and I rushed to go in, I love shopping by the way. My partner pulled me back, very concerned. No you must wait here for a while. It was at that point I noticed about four of five other couples just hanging around. The entrance was up an escalator and they were all staring anxiously at the entrance.
I of course asked how long we had to wait. “Oh” he said, “about 15 minutes” what???
When I asked him why and if there was anything wrong. Maybe there was some strange Italian custom or law that meant that the store could only hold a certain number of people.
He replied that our bodies had to adjust as there was air conditioning inside and if we went straight in from the hot car, we would surely get the dreaded influenza.
Can you believe it? Maybe being English, I’m super human and strong but please, we have to add on 15 minutes every time we want to go in to a shop? No thanks, I’ll take the risk.
The dangers of air conditioning are taken very seriously. You have to sizzle in cars because if you are in any way, just a little bit, maybe sticky and you turn on the “aria fredda” (cold air) then you’ll not only get influenza but ” mal di collo” (achy neck) too. Good heavens, you’re taking a huge chance there!
I often see groups of people seriously discussing their health. They may have been somewhere hot, or have done sport and they exclaim in horror, “ero tutto sudato!”, I was all sweaty to which the replies come, ohh no, you need to be careful, watch it etc.
So those pictures of gorgeous Italian guys, wiping the sweat from their brow, looking oh so sexy? Forget it, that’s far too dangerous.
Living in la bella Toscana (beautiful Tuscany) I consider myself extremely lucky. There is so much culture here, it almost hurts.
In just over an hour by train I can be in Florence where the risk of being overwhelmed with beauty is very real. This place, whilst a busy city, is filled with treasures and gorgeousness. Oh by the way, it’s also filled with tourists and a lot of traffic.
One of the first times I actually went to Florence was to celebrate a wedding anniversary (without kids and with my now ex. husband) when I was still living in England. I remember trying to find a good, small local restaurant to eat and coming across the aftermath of a scooter accident.
The “victim” who had been on the scooter was lying on the floor trying to get up whilst the predominantly Italian “audience” were shouting “stay where you are”, “don’t get up”. There was clearly nothing wrong with the person (still not sure if it was male or female) as they were doing their level best to get up but of course the ever cautious Italians were adamant that he or she should stay down, even holding them down to make sure. In the end, they succumbed to and lay flat out. The ambulance was after all on the way and those glorious Italian police women were on hand, or rather standing around looking glamorous, with their long wavy hair and two inch long nails. I wonder how they ever catch the criminals? Ah well, that will be another story.
Oops, got side tracked a bit there, anyhow, the beauty and art here in Tuscany is just fabulous you overdose on it and still come back for more. You don’t have to look far to find exhibitions or “mostre di arte” in this wonderful part of Italy. The other famous towns and cities of Pisa, Sienna and Lucca are all here as well as Pietrasanta which is a permanent art exhibition in itself!
Back in Florence though, you can walk across the Piazza Della Signora surrounded by breathtakingly historical buildings and filled with statues, including the David. Walk along the Piazzale degli Uffizi, lined with statues of the great philosophers where you can have your portrait sketched by one of the roadside artists. You are steeped in art and beauty. Every time I visit, I find myself running for the return train home. I always run out of time, there is so much to see. So if you are not lucky enough to live nearby like me, book yourself a couple of nights and give yourself a chance to take it all in.
If you feel the urge to contribute to the art world yourself, you can enrol for classes. One great way of doing this is to book a week of intensive learning. You can combine it with a summer holiday so you can really focus and also relax and enjoy. There are quite a few companies offering painting holidays here in Tuscany. They usually offer days out too so it’s a great way of seeing the area with an artistic eye. Oh yes and you get to take your paintings home to remember your holiday by.
One thing I have learned in all my years living here in Italy is that the Italians have a cure for everything. Food here is so important. Discussions can be heard about where you can eat well (si mangia bene) or not and if you don’t then that eating place is to be avoided at all costs.
You won’t be surprised to learn that at the slightest feeling of not being quite right, maybe a slight bloating, an unsettled stomach or just feeling out of sorts, then the Italians have a foodie cure. They resort to eating in white.
No, that’s not dressing up in your best white clothes for every meal. Eating in white means eating bland white coloured food. Bread or plain pasta with a touch of oil. Parmesan cheese, also white, is considered excellent for health so you can eat this with your pasta or alone for best benefits.
Things to be avoided:
Tea – it makes you agitated.
Peppers in the evening – they can’t be digested.
Too much of anything, the Italians are extremely cautious about eating and do everything in moderation.
Things to be encouraged:
Everything in moderation.
Bread and almost anything cooked in a wood oven!