‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…
But drip, drop, and bubble heard from dark streets below,
December in Venice is a time for high water, not snow!
Up, up and over stone edges it laps, gondole dance on the waves,
And land down with a clap;
Canal and calle now one and the same –
Father Christmas due still, but by a different name.
Here a Venezia it’s by ‘Babbo Natale’ he goes,
Though how he’ll make it through the tides, nobody knows!
The thing about reindeer, they’re great in the snow,
But through streets made of water, how shall they go?
From foggy windows above, small faces peer in alarm –
With presents at stake, it’s no time for calm!
“Away from those windows bambini,” the grown-ups they call,
The long table is set, piled with plates, drinks, and all –
Paste, zuppe, carni, not to mention the sweets!
A feast to gladden the worried small faces it greets.
Twelve days has Christmas and for each a new dish,
The first a bellini, (the grown-ups, at least, granted their Christmas wish!)
So around gather the family, in the warm flickering light,
“Chin chin, Salute!” and for now it’s forgotten, the damp foggy night.
As for poor Babbo, the reindeer, their fate?
Now there’s food on the table, for that answer, we must wait…
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….
Un Mandarino Bellini
At Harry’s Bar, just a few steps from San Marco, you might still manage to order one of their famed peach bellinis during the winter. Over at the Gritti however, the elderly barman will give an experienced shake of the head. Fresh fruit is key, so for Christmas, peaches are out, and mandarins in!
- One flute of Prosecco
- 15ml of Cointreau
- A squeeze of mandarin
- Twist of orange peel
Top up a flute of prosecco with some Cointreau, then squeeze in the juice from about half a mandarin. To make an orange zest twist, cut a thin slice of orange, then use a paring knife to cut carefully between pith and zest. Give the peel a little twist, and drop it straight in!
On the second day of Christmas…
Una Zuppa Calda di Porcini
Porcini Mushroom & Chestnut Soup
Chestnuts, castagne, to the Italians, can be found roasting on many a Venetian corner in the lead up to Christmas. It’s tempting to stop at each vendor for a fresh bag – peeling hot chestnuts being the only way to keep un-gloved fingers warm in the damp chilly air!
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil + extra to garnish if you wish
- 1 small brown onion – chopped
- 1 clove of garlic – crushed
- 1 stalk of celery – chopped
- 200g of fresh porcini if available, substitute either chestnut mushrooms, or portobello if not – roughly chopped
- 2 sprigs of rosemary – leaves picked and finely chopped
- 400g of cooked chestnuts (shelled weight). The pre-cooked vacuum-packed sort work well if you don’t want to spend hours cooking and peeling fresh chestnuts
- ½ cup (loosely packed) dried porcini mushrooms
- 1 litre of water
- Some nutmeg to grate
Up to 4 hours before you are ready to cook, bring one litre of water to a near boil, and add the dried porcini. Cover with a lid and allow to steep until you are ready to start making the soup. The longer you can leave the stock to develop, the better!
Heat the olive oil, and gently fry the onions, celery, and garlic together until softened, around 10 minutes. Next, add the chopped mushrooms, and most of the chestnuts (reserving around a quarter to use later as a garnish), along with half of the rosemary. Fry these together, allowing the mushrooms to colour, for around 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, sieve the poricini stock to remove any grit or fine particles, and add to the pan to cover the chestnuts and mushrooms. Add salt and pepper to season.
Simmer gently over a low heat, for 30 minutes or until the chestnuts have softened sufficiently and can be easily broken apart.
Allow the soup to cool a little before carefully blending in batches. Let the blender run for around a minute on a high setting to achieve a completely smooth consistency.
Prepare a garnish for the soup by breaking the remaining chestnuts up a little, and frying in oil briefly until golden and crisp.
In a small bowl mix the remaining rosemary with some olive oil to create a rosemary drizzle.
Ladle the warm soup into bowls, top with the golden chestnuts, and finish with a bright drizzle of rosemary oil.
On the third day of Christmas…
Anatra Ragù su Reginette
Venetian Duck Ragù Reginette
Duck ragù is the quintessential winter dish of the Venetian islands, and one of the few meat dishes in a region more famed for its seafood. Topped with orange zest, and spiced with nutmeg, it's wonderfully warm and Christmassy, and surprisingly relaxing to make, the long slow cooking time allowing you to get on with other things while it happily blips away on the stove-top, wafting anticipation through the house!
- 2 legs of duck – (approx. 750g)
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 brown onion – finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic – crushed
- 1 stalk of celery – finely diced
- 1 carrot – finely diced
- 1 sprig of rosemary – leaves picked and finely chopped (approx. 1 teaspoon)
- 175ml Valpolicella wine (or another rich, fruity red)
- 400ml chicken stock
- 250g chopped tinned tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon of sugar
- 2 fresh bay leaves (or 1 dried)
- ½ a nutmeg – finely grated
- 1 tablespoon pouring cream
- 400g Reginette (substitute Pappardelle or Stracci if Reginette is not available)
- Zest of 1 orange
- Grated Parmesan to serve
Remove any excess fat from the duck legs with a sharp knife, but leave the skin on and in-tact.
Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-based pan or casserole over medium-high heat. When hot, add the duck legs and proceed to fry until browned on all sides – around 7 minutes. The oil may spit a little as the duck cooks, so take care.
Once well-browned, remove the legs from the pan and set aside. Turn the heat down a little and gently fry the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic for ten minutes or until softened.
Return the duck to the pan, along with the red wine, chicken stock, tinned tomatoes, sugar, finely chopped rosemary, bay leaves, grated nutmeg, and some salt, and pepper. Cover, bring to a boil, and then, when boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer.
Cook for 2 hours, giving the sauce a gentle stir occasionally, and topping up with a little stock if it looks to be drying out at any point.
When the meat is soft and falling off the bones, carefully lift the duck legs out of the sauce and onto a chopping board. (Now’s also a good time to fish out and discard the bay leaves which will, by now, have finished doing their job). Shred the duck meat using a knife and fork, and discard the bones. Add the shredded meat back to the sauce, along with one tablespoon of pouring cream. Stir to combine, and continue to simmer gently.
Place a large pot of well-salted water on to boil. When boiling rapidly, add the reginette, and cook according to packet instructions – typically 8-10 minutes.
Drain the pasta, reserving a tiny bit of the cooking water, then add both to the ragù, stirring vigorously to combine.
Pile high onto four dishes to serve; scatter with some grated orange zest, and parmesan.
On the fourth day of Christmas…
Finocchi e Raddichi Brasati
Braised Fennel & Radicchio with Melted Fontina
Fennel is completely transformed when braised in butter and wine. After around thirty minutes it becomes silky in texture and golden in colour. The feather-like radicchio, Tardivo di Treviso, on the other hand, requires more delicate handling, and will lose its colour if left too long in the pan. Pop it at the very end just before the adding the deliciously melty Fontina…
(Serves 4 as a side)
- 1 bulb of fennel – thickly sliced
- 3 heads of radicchio (I’ve used Treviso Tardivo)
- 50g butter
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- One large glass of dry white wine
- 150ml vegetable stock
- 2 fresh bay leaves
- Salt & freshly ground black pepper
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- 75g of Fontina cheese
- Crusty bread sliced thickly to serve
Heat the butter and olive oil together over medium heat in a heavy-based pan. Add the slices of fennel and fry until golden on both sides.
Splash in the wine, and allow to sauté for around 2 minutes, before adding the vegetable stock, bay leaves, salt, and pepper. Bring briefly to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer and allow to cook slowly for 30 minutes, or until the fennel is silky and golden. Top up with vegetable stock if the pan dries out during this time – it is nice to keep things a little on the liquid-y side creating a delicious buttery sauce to be mopped up with bread!
While the fennel is cooking, pre-heat the grill to medium, and grate the Fontina ready to sprinkle over the top and melt.
Prepare the Treviso tardivo by cutting off the stems that join the curled leaves together. Separate out the individual ‘fingers’ and toss these into the pan, along with the lemon juice, jiggling everything around to coat.
Cook for a few minutes, until the radicchio is a touch softened, but not discoloured, then scatter with cheese and pop under the pre-heated grill.
When the cheese is melted and bubbling, you’re ready serve, with crusty bread close at hand for juice-mopping!
On the fifth day of Christmas…
Cinque Susine d’Oro
Baked Plums with Star Anise & Cointreau Cream
The children were nestled all snug in their beds; While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads…
Though, with a boozy orange cream, this one's really another for the adults!
- 8 small plums – halved, stones removed
- 125g blackberries
- 100g caster sugar
- 1 vanilla pod – split lengthways, seeds scraped
- 4 star anise
For the Cream
- 200ml double cream
- 125g mascarpone
- 1 tablespoon caster sugar
- 3 teaspoons Cointreau
- Zest of 1 orange
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Arrange the plums in a baking dish with the cut-sides up. Sprinkle over the sugar, and add the star anise, vanilla pod, and scraped-out vanilla seeds.
Place in the oven and cook for 15 minutes before adding the blackberries. Shake the pan around as you do so, helping to coat the fruit in the poaching juice and melted sugar. Return to the oven and cook for a further 15 minutes, until the fruit is tender and the juice is rich, sticky, and the colour of red wine.
To make the Cointreau cream, combine the whipping cream and mascarpone in a bowl, along with the caster sugar. Whisk together until the cream forms soft peaks, then fold in the alcohol. Feel free to add a little more or little less depending on your taste. Three tablespoons adds bit of a boozy kick, but is not totally overwhelming.
To serve, spoon the plums and blackberries into a small bowl, drizzling extra sticky sauce over to coat. Dollop some of the cream on top, and sprinkle each dish with a pinch of orange zest.
On the sixth day of Christmas…
Panettone con Zabione
Panettone Bread Pudding with Zabione
There is never a Christmas panettone shortage in Venice! Entire shop walls are dedicated to its colourful conical boxes, and ceilings hung with more of the same. This bread pudding takes advantage of the surplus. It works especially well with stale panettone, so is prefect for utilising what’s left-over.
- 750g panettone
- 65g of softened unsalted butter + extra for greasing
- 4 eggs
- 25g caster sugar
- 400ml full-cream milk
- 300ml double cream + extra to serve
- 75ml Marsala dolce
Cut the panettone into thick slices, and butter one side of each. Use a little extra butter to lightly grease a deep oven-proof dish, then arrange the first slices of panettone upright along the edges, buttered side out. Fill in the centre of the dish with one overlapping layer of uprights slices.
In a large bowl mix together the eggs and sugar then whisk in the milk, cream, and Marsala. Pour the custard mixture over the panettone, and leave to stand for around 30 minutes.
While the panettone soaks up the zabione, preheat the oven to 170°C.
When ready to bake, place the pudding dish inside a large roasting tin, and fill the tin with water until it comes to around halfway up the sides of the baking dish.
Place everything in the oven and cook for 35 minutes, or until the pudding is golden and puffy, and the zabione just set.
Allow to rest briefly before serving warm, with extra double cream drizzled over the top, and a glass of Marsala alongside.