Each region of Italy has its cultural and gastronomical peculiarities, as well as Christmas traditions. Let’s explore the North of Italy – Veneto region together! We begin our story exploring the traditions of the fest.
Christmas markets (Mercatini di Natale)
Christmas markets are the special tradition in the northern Italy – you can buy toys for the Christmas tree, trinkets and sweets, local cheeses and smoked meats, as well as enjoy hot mulled wine (vin brulè) with hearty meat snacks. Everything here is filled with the spirit of Christmas from the elegant fir trees on the lively squares and houses with tiled roofs to numerous cathedrals that remind of castles.
Christmas nativity scene
Christmas presepe (Italian for «nativity scene») is a tradition that turned into a full display of Italian creativity. Each year, a composition that shows the birth of Jesus is set the Vatican as well as in many Italian households. People in the cities stage live performances, and in churches, they hold special exhibitions of nativity scenes.
For Italians, Christmas is the most homely holiday of the year, usually celebrated with family. At midnight or in the morning of the following day, kids and adults find their gifts under the Christmas tree. The next day, families gather for a traditional hearty Christmas dinner. The menu often includes red radicchio salad with soft cheeses, walnuts and pomegranate sauce, homemade gnocchi, tortellini or tagliatelle pasta with mint, mushrooms and Parmesan, and baked cod with potatoes, or meats with polenta.
Naturally, no Christmas celebration is complete without sweets. In the north of Italy, Christmas is the occasion to bake panettone, a cake with candied fruit and spices, or pandoro – a star-shaped cake with delicious vanilla frosting. Each dish is carefully paired with wine. The pairing rules in Italian families are rather strict: aged red wine is served with hot dishes, while lighter wines are chosen for pasta and snacks.
When the dinner is over, the family members gather by the Christmas tree to open the presents. On December 13, Santa Lucia Day, and on February 6, Epiphany Day, it is customary to give sweets and presents to the kids that behaved well throughout the year. Those who haven’t behaved well only receive coals – black sweets from Santa Lucia and La Befana.
New Year celebration in Northern Italy
New Year in Italy is usually celebrated at loud parties with friends. On the New Year's Eve, Italians gather on the main squares of the cities, where they count down the seconds of the year and wait for the grand fireworks. Perhaps the funniest New Italy is wearing red underwear – not only it is the main color of the winter holidays, but also a lucky charm for good luck in the coming year.
The end of the Italian New Year coincides with the beginning of the celebration of Orthodox Christmas in Ukraine, and despite the calendar differences, the winter holidays in Italy and Ukraine are similar in many ways. In Ukraine, just like in Italy, Christians attend the Midnight Mass. Meat dishes, as well alcohol, are not allowed on the festive table on Christmas Eve either. Both Ukrainians and Italians serve a variety of treats, including meat dishes and wines for Christmas dinner and New Year celebration.
About traditions firsthand
Naturally, when it comes to Italian wine, no one can talk about it better than the Italians. We grasped the opportunity to talk to the Managing Director of the Valpolicella Wine Board (Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella) Olga Bussinello, who told us more about the Christmas traditions of the North of Italy, about the fine wines of the region, and interesting gastronomic pairings.
Olga, please tell us a bit about the traditions of celebrating Christmas and new year in your family.
The Italians say, "Natale con tuoi, Capodanno con chi vuoi", which means celebrate Christmas with the family, and New Year – with anyone you want. Even nowadays many Italians celebrate Christmas with their parents, gathering with the whole family for one big family dinner.
Our family is not an exception in this case. For us, New Year is an occasion to meet with friends. No matter where the holidays catch us, it is important to keep up the holiday mood and prepare an excellent dinner with traditional dishes and good wine.
Valpolicella is the region of Veneto that embraces Verona city neighborhood and extends to the scenic valleys between the hills and Adige river. If Christmas is the main holiday of the year, then what wine is the main in Veneto?
Naturally, it is Amarone della Valpolicella, which is one of the most prestigious wines of Italy beloved in our family as well. Amarone is a rich, full-bodied drink with intense aromas of fruits, like cherry and raspberry, as well as tobacco and spices.
Like many things in Italy, the creation of this wine has its own history and is considered a lucky accident, when one of the local winemakers left Recioto della Valpolicella DOCg wine for secondary fermentation by design or forgetfulness, turning the sweet wine into a dry one. he named it «amaro-ne», which means «very bitter» in Italian. In fact, this is true only in comparison with the sweet Recioto, which served as the starting point in the history of Amarone.
What dishes are the best pick to enjoy a glass of Amarone with?
Pick carefully: high alcohol content (15-16%) needs a counterweight, which calls for soft dishes to balance out the wine's properties. That's why, the best partners of this drink are meat served in a sauce or in wine, and aged cheeses with a strong taste. Valpolicella dwellers prefer Monte Veronese cheeses, as well as the iconic Parmigiano reggiano. Those who would like to experiment can serve the wine with fish, for instance, roasted tuna in red wine sauce. Amarone is perfect for finishing the dinner and hearty chats; the main thing is to leave the wine to 'breathe' for at least half an hour.
Amarone isn't the only wine produced in Valpolicella that often takes its rightful place on the Christmas table. What other wines of the region are popular during the holiday season and what dishes suit them best?
Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC, a complex, full-bodied and well-structured wine with dark berries and vanilla notes can also be served during the Christmas dinner. This wine tastes the best with meat dishes. Ripasso della Valpolicella DOCg has a rich color and flavor – it is a great match for fowl. The true gem to serve with desserts is Recioto della Valpolicella DOCg, which is considered the cult wine of the region. It has a bright velvety flavor with notes of sweet cherry, violets, toffee and spices, and the color of the wine resembles overripe pomegranate.
The traditional cuisine of Northern Italy, as well as the Ukrainian cuisine, is famous for meat dishes that are perfectly combined with vintage red wines. It is important to follow a simple rule when choosing a wine: the more complex the dish, the more complex the wine. Don't be afraid to try and share impressions – which wine is given a preference, in the end, depends largely on personal taste.
Have you ever tried Ukrainian wines and dishes?
Yes, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with Ukrainian wines. I find them very interesting. red wines made in Ukraine are distinguished by their special softness, which is highly appreciated among professionals; the white wines have the right acidity, which is definitely a positive characteristic for white wines and a good basis for creating the further wine bouquet.
To talk about the traditional dishes, I really like Ukrainian borshch! It is a perfect match for Valpolicella Superiore. Then, if you roll risotto in radicchio leaves, it becomes Italian holubtsi. however, you won’t find it in the North of Italy, after all, it’s definitely a Ukrainian dish. however, Ukrainian dumplings are, in their essence, very similar to Italian pasta with filling (tortelli), although the fillings are very different. grated potatoes, as you serve it (deruny - Ed.), are familiar to us from the Bavarian cuisine, however, this is an unusual dish for Italians.
In your opinion, how compatible are Italian dishes with Ukrainian cuisine?
For the second year in a row, together with our Ukrainian partners, we organize events in Kyiv to present the Italian wines of Valpolicella in Ukraine. These are master classes, tastings and closed dinners, where the guests are served our wines with local dishes.
I can assure you that Ukrainian cuisine is at its best every time. The final dinner this year was especially exquisite: steak tartare, duck breast with raspberries, calf cheeks in wine sauce and dessert. Believe me, everything went well with the red wines of Valpolicella.
What would you wish Ukrainians and Italians for this new year and Christmas?
Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Let the holidays bring harmony, joy and new impressions to our homes. And, perhaps, meeting more often – the reason can always be found! I invite everyone to Anteprima Amarone 2015. The most important wine-tasting event dedicated to Amarone, where the producers of the region will present Amarone wines of the 2015 harvest. It will take place on February 2-4, 2019, in the Palazzio della Grande Guardia in Verona. Benvenuti!
Photos: shutterstock.com, unsplash.com, Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella.