It’d had been close to four years since Franca last spent Christmas in Puglia with her family, and with that in mind our decision about where to spend the holidays this year was never in doubt. But this time her point of view would be different.
For a long time I’ve made my thoughts on Puglia well known, that the region and the people of Puglia are amazing, and the above all the food is incredible too. With mouthwatering dishes that focus on simplicity and developing the natural flavours of all of the locally produced fruit and vegetables that Puglia has in abundance.
Across Italy people have a fondness for the simplicity of Puglia’s cuisine, and having travelled to explore the region numerous times since visiting Franca’s family for the first time in 2010, count myself amongst the the growing international community of lovers who can’t get enough ‘Orecchiette‘ pasta and handful-after-handful of Tarralli into their mouths.
One large component of not just Pugliese cuisine – but general Italian cuisine too – is the high value meat has on the menu. Pork, beef, lamb, rabbit, and even horse is not an uncommon sight on a dinner table, and when the winter holidays come around the table is full of fresh cuts and cooked meat from Christmas Eve to St. Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day).
A Vegan Christmas In Puglia
With three days of multi-course meals planned that would probably stretch across four or five hours (the reality is more like seven/eight hours), seeing it from a vegan point of view was going to be a conflicted event due to my wanting to see the traditional events and food from the festive season, but would perhaps not feel comfortable as the meat course passes past my plate to the next recipient.
As of late, I’ve decided that it’s better to document the things around me than to just dismiss and criticize them straight from the world go. It’s unfair of anyone to condemn anything without having made the effort to educate themselves about it first, so in light of this, I decided to document and photograph everything that adorned the table, whether I accepted it or not.
Most of Franca and my own documentation of our Christmas eating has of course been centred around the vegan options that Franca’s family have kindly provided for us, but whilst some of my initial thinking was that they’d be adapting some Pugliese recipes for us, the reality was food straight out of Puglia’s traditional cookbook that are already vegan by defeat, and some of them are classic mainstays of many kitchens in the south.
Here’s a look at the both sides of the table during our Christmas in Puglia.
Note – The following pictures contain images of both vegan food, and meat and cheese courses.
Traditionally on Christmas Eve Italian’s across the country will forego the usual meat course in their meal and will instead pick a fish dish so that they’re not only offsetting the huge amount of meat they’re going to ingest over the Christmas period, but also due to a long held religious tradition of abstaining from milk and dairy on Sundays and other sporadic important religious dates throughout the year.
For Franca’s family it was going to be a selection of fried seafood paired with a salmon steak grilled on the open fire in the living room. Prior to that, however, there was to be a plate of pasta with a seafood sauce.
Franca and I had a plate of the same cavatellucci pasta, but with a delicious artichoke sauce that neither of us could get enough of – though that was probably for the best considering that there was still food to come.
Between courses Franca’s mother and aunt took to the kitchen to slice up the foccacia that had been made for the day. Two regular stuffed focaccia for the meat eaters – one with leeks, olives and tuna, the other with ham and mozzarella – and one specifically for us two vegans that contained chicory, sultanas, and olives. Needless to say that we both adored the vegan focaccia and soon made short work of eating our way through most of our share.
As the day was growing darker and waistbands all around becoming tighter, all that remained was the final course of sweets, some of which are highly typical at Christmas and rarely seen throughout the rest of the year. The first is called pandoro, a cake of fermented dough that takes close to two days to make from the first raising of the dough to the final baking, and is one of the chief exports from Verona, it’s most commonly thought original home. Unfortunately it’s not vegan due to the amount of eggs that it uses, but from what Franca can remember of eating it in years gone by, it’s incredibly buttery and intensely sweet, but quite light.
Unfortunately my recent love for cartellate couldn’t be sated due to the plateful on the table being coated entirely with honey and colourful sprinkles, but there was some crazy and bitter sweet almond torrone that we could snack on instead that was entirely vegan.
Enthused to observe the entire occasion of Christmas Day in Puglia and all of the food that comes with it, I was up and ready to watch the whole process of preparation to the arrival and seating at the table of the majority of Franca’s family. First Franca’s grandmother, aunt and uncle arrived, followed eventually behind by the rest of the family, and as soon as the stragglers made their way through the door and placed their coats upon the pile in one bedroom (as is the international custom), plates we’re prepared for the starters.
To open with the family were going to start with the regular selection of multiple cheeses and fresh meat cuts that mark the beginning of so many family gatherings and meals. All of which come from local sources who typically are friends of the family, such is the community here in the south where so many people are either farmers themselves or related to one in some way or another. Our starter on the other hand was simply a refreshing plate of beetroot thanks to a smart suggestion from Franca to pace ourselves with light bites as we’d yet to hit the half way stage in our eating over Christmas.
As is the tradition again the first plate was pasta, again sticking with the Pugliese orecchiette. This time however the sauce for the rest of the family would be a more traditional meat ragu, where as we deviated a little from the norm and opted to start our first vegan Christmas with a lentil bolognese, and I must add that it was out of this world.
What was to follow the first course was somewhat harder to swallow, though thankfully not literally.
I’ve never seen so much meat before in my life. It’s mind-boggling just how much meat was being cooked, although the quantity was simply greater than usual due to the quadrupling of people sat at the dinner table. It was really something special to observe from the other side of the table, knowing full well that two years ago I was sitting at the same table and not giving a second thought to putting the same choice cuts into my mouth, but I’m so glad I’m not that person any more.
Our own choice of secondo was much more to my taste, and still just as traditional a course in Puglia as the other food options being consumed right then.
We chose a simple dish of large field mushrooms, grilled on the open fire prior to the meat, lightly drizzled with oil, with a sprinkling of garlic and parsley. Paired with some salad an oven roasted potatoes, neither of us had any trouble enjoying this stage of the meal.
Between each course there are long breaks where people recount stories and catch up, gossiping about this and that, thankful for the five minutes of rest so that their digestive system can catch up, but finally after the meat course comes the final three. One of nuts, the second of fruit, and the last one of sweets.
Much like everywhere else in the world, sweets at Christmas are a little different to the rest of the year, with some biscuits and cakes making their once a year appearance, and most loved amongst all Italian’s is the arrival of the panettone. Again, thanks to the inclusion of milk, eggs, and butter we couldn’t share a piece with the rest of the family, but certainly enjoyed it’s unique fermented aroma that’s punctuated with an orange fragrance thanks to the zest in the ingredients.
Note – During December we found several bio shops in Italy selling vegan panettone, so if you’re planning to spend Christmas in Puglia, let us know and we’ll put you in the right direction
If the inclusion of panettone wasn’t enough, all across the table was a selection of both home made and patisserie bought cakes and sweet biscuits that soon found their way into the mouths of those who still include eggs and butter in their diet.
St. Stephen’s Day / Boxing Day
On the morning of Boxing Day nobody in the house could face breakfast, especially considering that a whole extra day of eating lay ahead. Thankfully though there wouldn’t be quite the same quantity of food as the previous two days, but enough to fill each and every person seated around the table.
Whilst Franca’s mother cooked a little fresh food for everyone else in the family, we both made better use of the leftover artichokes from the day before, much like my own family tend to do on Boxing Day in the UK.
Honestly, by the end of the day I felt like I was going to pop, and that’s after having paid attention to eating mainly fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the previous 48 hours; but I really enjoyed myself. I loved watching all of the family laugh and joke with each other between forks full of pasta and the piles of delicious sweets. It was that special marriage of food and family that’s unique to watch and an absolute pleasure to be a part of.
I consider myself really lucky to have spent not only a Christmas in Puglia, but also amongst friends and family that I now hold quite dear to my heart. The fact that it’s quite easy to eat as a vegan in Puglia only encourages me to ask that you to consider Puglia in your plans next year. I think you’ll love it.
Would you like to spend Christmas in Puglia?