“When Giovanna del Perugia invited us to share a home-style Italian Christmas feast, there was no chance we were going to miss out!
There’s a reason why, for centuries, Italian cuisine has enslaved tastebuds around the globe. Because it’s mighty fine, that’s why. From the wonder of a perfect pizza and silky smooth pasta, to rich tomato sauces, hearty meat dishes, fresh fish and delectable cheeses, it’s got no end of culinary talents. Yep, Italy may not be huge, but it certainly knows how to pack a punch when it comes to flavour. So given how good just regular every day Italian food is, the thought of what might happen at a major celebration – say, Christmas – was pretty darn exciting.
Giovanna del Perugia runs a small catering business, I Piatti di Giovanna , in Burford, taking the best from the Cotswolds and merging it with her Italian heritage. This evening, she’s decided to share her family’s culinary Christmas traditions with some friends, and she’s invited Team Crumbs to come along to join in the fun. We’re all gathered in the really rather gorgeous Cats Abbey in Sherborne, and although C-Day is still a few weeks off, it’s been fully decked out in Yuletide fashion for the occasion, to ensure that everyone’s well and truly in the Christmas spirit.
Giovanna grew up in Florence in a classic Italian family that she describes as “still extremely, sometimes infuriatingly, fussy about the food they eat. They will only eat the very best ingredients, and those are usually grown on the family estate situated in the hills around Florence.” In fact, the red wine made from San Giovese and Merlot grapes that we’re quaffing comes from her family’s estate and is, we can confirm, excellent. “The Christmas dinner was the most extravagant meal,” says Giovanna. “It was packed with dishes that didn’t appear the rest of the year, either because they were too elaborate to be prepared, or the ingredients were too expensive to buy – like truffles or lobster. The dishes were, for the main part, from our culinary tradition, but every year there was a little twist – maybe something small, but something different and new. This could have been a new variation on a traditional dish, a different canapé, or a colourful cocktail.”
We start with antipasto Russian salad, which may not sound very Italian, but there’s at least one school of thought that gives it Italian roots. The story goes (and it’s the tale we’re sticking with!) that in Piedmont in the 19th century a chef at the Court of Savoy made the dish for the visiting Russian Tsar, using ingredients commonly grown in Russia, such as carrot and potatoes, and using cream, instead of mayonnaise, to represent the Russian snow. The tsar loved it, and took the recipe back to Russia with him. Giovanna’s family recipe includes the likes of carrots, potatoes, peas, gherkins and homemade mayonnaise, and is a very lovely thing indeed.
There’s a primo piatto (that wonderful Italian innovation of a course between the starter and the main) of Tortellini in Brodo. Giovanna tells us that, when her mother was a young girl, tortellini were only eaten at Christmas, so when they appeared in shops it prompted much excitement among the children, because it meant that Christmas was approaching. You know that phrase, ‘Feeling like all your Christmasses have come at once’? That’s how I feel as I tuck into the bowlful. The pasta is so soft and so silky, with a flavoursome filling of meat, spices and Parmesan. It’s swimming in a light broth (brodo) which packs far more of a punch than it looks like it should. It’s the very definition of comfort food.
It soon becomes apparent why the brodo is just so good. It’s made from the stock in which the beef that’s being dished up for secondo piatto has been cooked. The dish is called Lesso, which is, as Giovanna tells us, a cooking technique very typical of Tuscany, where she is from. “Lesso is a classic Christmas dish that follows tortellini in brodo,” she says. “The beef is slowly cooked with chicken, vegetables, spices and herbs in water. Once the beef is tender, it’s removed from the liquid, carved and served.” And oh, was that beef tender! It practically melted in the mouth and, with a zingy salsa verde, sharp but sweep pickled peppers and creamy mashed potatoes, it made for a deeply satisfying plate of food. What could follow that?
Well, it turned out that cheese – or formaggi, if we’re going to be all Italian – came next. But, in tribute to our Cotswolds location, the selection hailed not from Italy, but from the neighbouring village of Windrush – Windrush Farm, to be exact. A smorgasbord of goat’s cheeses, it proved just how varied this ingredient can be, with the examples ranging from a young, mild morsel with a light delicate flavour, to a mature round with the trademark goaty tang.
Dolce comes, and Giovanna hits the sweet spot with a semifreddo al torrone. “It’s not a typical Italian Christmas dessert,” explains Giovanna. “But, as I said, in my family each Christmas party has a little twist and something different. This is my favourite dessert – an almost frozen creamy concoction which is given texture by almonds and dark chocolate.” It only takes one spoonful to realise why Giovanna loves this dessert so much. Light as a cloud – which is a relief after the preceding feast – and not too sweet, with bitter notes from the chocolate and toasty warmth from the nuts, it’s an absolute delight.
We finish our feasting with ricciarelli, traditional Christmas almond biscuits originating in 14th century Siena and served with Vin Santo wine – a typical Tuscan wine made with Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes.
There’s unanimous agreement that Giovanna has done her family traditions proud. And, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking, with food like that, I really do wish it could be Christmas every day…”