Christmas in Rome – Ancient Traditions
Bag pipes? Bag pipes in Italy! I quickly learned that no Italian Christmas would be complete without the sound of bagpipes. Everywhere from the piazzas of Rome to remote hillside villages, Zampognari (pipers) continue the tradition of festive bagpipe playing that dates back to ancient Rome.
Christmas in both Abruzzo and Lazio remains a holiday deeply rooted in ancient traditions where true values are passed down through the stories of the elderly from generation to generation. This week’s menu stars many ingredients popular in these regions and found on their holiday menus.
Chef's Travel Notes
The magic of Christmas is Piazza Navona has been etched in my mind since I was 16 years old. It was my first trip to Rome, and I couldn’t get my fill of the colorful lights and Christmas stalls in the iconic piazza.
I heard them first, before I saw them. It was a loud, sharp, rustic sound reminiscent of bleating sheep. Bagpipes? Bagpipes in Italy! I quickly learned that no Italian Christmas would be complete without the sound of bagpipes. Everywhere from the piazzas of Rome to remote hillside villages, the Zampognari (pipers) continue the tradition of festive bagpipe playing that dates back to ancient Rome. Apparently, the fiddle was not the only instrument Nero played. History shows the terrible Roman Emperor liked to play an instrument similar to the Zampogna.
Dressed in traditional sheep skin and woolen cloaks, the pipers were originally shepherds from the neighboring region of Abruzzo who traveled down from their homes in the mountains in an effort to make extra income by performing in the streets of Rome. Legend has it that once the shepherds gazed upon Baby Jesus in the manger, they took out their bagpipes and played for him. That would explain why still today, they visit Nativity scenes throughout the city to pay homage.
The Romans take Christmas very seriously and is quite a grand affair and a wonderful celebration to experience. Although it is not as glitzy as in some cities, it tends to focus more on families, religious festivities, and the real meaning behind Christmas. Of course, they have fun too. There is a great atmosphere in the city and the Romans like to socialize and stay outside in the streets and piazzas (pre-COVID!)
Christmas in both Abruzzo and Lazio remains a holiday deeply rooted in ancient traditions while true values are passed down through the stories of the elderly from generation to generation. Recipes and stories certainly are shared while cooking in the kitchen but for many families this most festive day would not be complete without a friendly game of cards or “Tombola” after Christmas lunch. Very similar to bingo, “Tombola” is a game that all ages can play together. It is one of the most significant moments of the holiday, bringing the family closer.
Our menu this week stars many ingredients popular in both Abruzzo and Lazio. Insalata di Ceci. Romans love legumes. They are the basis for many of their bold dishes. Lazio’s countryside, renowned for its rich volcanic soil, grows exceptional produce. “Ceci,” chickpeas, have been a mainstay of their diet since ancient Rome.
Bucatini all’Amatriciana is Lazio’s iconic pasta, brought to infamous light after the recent terrible earthquake in its name sake city, Amatrice. It is said to be a favorite dish of the shepherds using cured pork and the strongly flavored pecorino Romano. It is intensely flavored and quick to prepare using just a few ingredients.
Spiedino di Gamberoni e Peperoni Rossi. With 100 miles of coast on the Adriatic, fishing plays a large role in Abruzzo’s economy. Its waters are spotted with “trabocchi”, a fishing platform with a long narrow pier connecting it to land. They were built to offer fisherman an alternative to fishing boats, always susceptible to weather, waves and tides. We alternate large, marinated shrimp with Lazio’s popular sweet red peppers on skewers grilled over smokey embers.
Panna Cotta Rosso, Bianco e Verde celebrates the colors of Christmas (and the Italian flag) by adorning this Italian classic pudding with pomegranate, toasted coconut, and mint.
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the region’s most popular grape varietal. Maschiarelli is a Wine Advocate Highly Respected Producer (3 Bicchieri Winner.) It is a medium-bodied dry red and is the perfect, versatile, food friendly wine that so many Italian restaurants and homes enjoy as their everyday “bevanda.”
As we have seen through the past 40 (!) weeks of Food Club menus and stories, Italy is a country rich in traditions, proud of its history and heritage. The Christmas season, in particular, is a time to gather the family together. A period during which different generations of family spend time under the same roof. With most of Italy sequestered in “Code Red” this year, I am sure it will be a dismal holiday for many families. This year we will revel in memories of Christmas past filled with hope for a much brighter and happier 2021.
Buon Natale a tutti!