Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Italian Christmas for the Italians

Italians are patriotic when it comes to shopping. And this is never truer than at Christmas. According to a recent survey, Italians will spend 2.2 billion on ‘Made in Italy’ products over the festive holidays. They’re looking for value for money, eschewing anything that’s out-of-season (peaches and cherries etc), opting instead for home grown and local. A whopping 73% said that they would only buy products ‘made in Italy’, a level of patriotism which is much higher than the European average of 60%.

Most Italians intend to give food as gifts for Christmas. Among the top contenders are Christmas sweets, torrone [nougat] and chocolates, Tuscan panforte and cantucci biscuits, pandolce from Liguria, panettone, struffoli from Campania and Puglia and various salumi or cured meat products made throughout the country. Specialty pastas, lentils and beans also feature high on the national gift list. Of those surveyed, 33% intend to buy local and 28% organic.

The gift of food, for Italians, is considered the greatest gesture one can make. Over the summer, Italians fortunate enough to own a large vegetable garden will gladly pick a few extra tomatoes for their neighbour every time they venture into the garden for the ingredients for a salad. So too, an excess of mushrooms, truffles or any wild food gathered is almost always shared with friends and family. The gift of food is always appreciated and it never gets old.

Why? Because the appreciation of food in Italian culture still stems from a time when food was scarce. The hard times, or cucina povera of old, is still engrained in the national psyche. And it wasn’t so long ago. The older generation in Italy is still young enough to remember times when food wasn’t readily available – and it’s a lesson that’s passed from one generation to the next. The frugality of the times was such that festive occasions such as Christmas became heightened in importance. The weeks, even months, in the run up to Christmas was a time of sacrifice. Eggs would be stored to make pasta, chestnuts and mushrooms would be dried and a good salami would be hung specially for the occasion. These were not foodstuffs that were eaten on a regular basis. Any surplus would have been sold to buy sugar for something sweet on the day.

Of course, there’s another angle to the Italian appreciation of food as a gift. It’s one steeped in religious tradition. The Italian Christmas begins on Christmas Eve and carries through to the Epiphany on the 6th of January. Gifts of food given in the days before Christmas are intended to last throughout the festive season. They are not exclusively intended for Christmas day. Again, this in part reflects a culture that left nothing to waste and understood the importance of making things last. It’s no coincidence that many dishes made over the festive season are dishes that are made to last – panforte, tortelli, panettone, spongata, the various cured meat products, to name just a few – and will be enjoyed throughout the two weeks of Christmas.

Christmas in Italy is very different from Christmas in most other countries I’ve spent time in. Although modernity has taken its toll, with an element of commercialism creeping in, it certainly hasn’t changed the fundamental character of the festive season. Personally I’m not complaining. There’s something quite comforting about going back to basics. These days I’ve come to expect the inevitable knock on the door followed by a panettone and a bottle of something homemade. I’m guilty myself – this year I have a surplus of dried mushrooms packed into pretty jars, homemade apricot and cherry jams, as well as some great biscuits. It beats socks and soap any day of the week!  

1 comment:

  1. Those are very interesting statistics Mario. There are certainly some very patriotic Italians out there. Our neighbours have given us food gifts through the year and they gave us a bottle of wine for us for Christmas and home-made Christmas decorations for our children (which are now on our tree). I agree that these presents beat socks and soap any day.