Christmas specialties from Modena: Christmas in the Terre di Castelli

What to taste absolutely in the festive period to capture traditions and food and wine culture

Taste

If we ask you to think of a typical Italian Christmas dish, what would you say? Many would say stuffed pasta for starters, others will recall the main course of boiled meats, for those with a sweet-tooth, croccante (crunchy almond brittle) and pane di Natale (a typical sweet bread) will hit the spot.

The Italian Christmas tradition has several well-known international landmarks. Each city has its own characteristics but were we to select one that considers its Christmas cuisine as one of its strong points, it would certainly be Modena!

Typical Christmas specialties from Modena

Sublime food and wine, quality products, and above all a great spirit of hospitality and sharing are the main ingredients of Christmas in Modena.

That's why most people from Modena, especially in areas like the Terre di Castelli - an area that includes eight municipalities from the province south of Modena to the Apennines - prefer to spend Christmas at home with their families, with the table laden with traditional dishes and wine glasses always full.

The reason an abundance of love and generosity can be found in Modena’s culinary tradition lies in its peasant roots; country cooking has always been an emblem of sharing and in and around Modena eating means sharing something, whether it's good company, a moment or a meal.

Most of the recipes seem designed to encourage conviviality and the desire to be together to enjoy a genuine dish prepared with love. Nothing unites diners more than a dish of lasagne: the cutting and sharing between guests at the dinner table is a ritual without the need for too many frills; and this is just one of many such dishes.

Frittelle di baccalà (Salt cod fritters)

Although the gastronomic tradition of Modena is linked to meat, especially pork, there is no lack of fish specialties. In fact, the entire province has maintained its popular custom of eating fish on Christmas Eve, the perfect occasion to dust off some typical recipes.

Like the cod fritters, which are also often prepared at Christmas lunch as an appetizer.

A simple and delicious dish where pieces of desalted cod, are dipped in a thick batter, made of flour and sparkling water or even beer, and fried.

Calzagatti

Originally a dish to make use of leftovers, calzagatti are still part of our culinary tradition.

To prepare them, cook a mixture of corn flour, water and milk (called polenta), add salt to taste and grated Parmigiano Reggiano if desired. Separately, fry garlic, rosemary and sage in a pan. Then add borlotti beans cooked in salted water and tomato sauce. Once cooked, combine the polenta with the bean sauce and leave to cool in a pan. Finally cut into lozenges or rectangles and fry.

Crispy and tasty, calzagatti are an important tradition for many families in Modena and cannot be left out on Christmas day.

Tortellini

Tortellini are surely the most famous dish among the Christmas specialties of Modena.

A thin sheet of fresh handmade egg pasta encases a generous filling of meat, Parmigiano Reggiano DOP (Parmesan Cheese) and Prosciutto di Modena DOP, a ham produced within the valley of the river Panaro which has, thanks to over 14 month of maturation, a sweet taste and an intense aroma.

Even today the origin of the tortellino is disputed between Modena and Bologna, but what everyone agrees is how it came about. It is said that the tortellino was born from the hands of an innkeeper, probably from the city of Castelfranco, who peeked through the keyhole of a door of his inn and on seeing the navel of a woman fell in love to the point of replicating it in his kitchen. Not surprisingly, in our area, we are used to saying "navel tortellino" if this is tendentially pot-bellied and round.

Every family has its own recipe and we should not be surprised if we see, from home to home, small variations. In fact, Emilian cuisine is born from home cooking, without precise rules and doses, but always made with great love and passion. However, all families and restaurants agree on how to cook and serve this delicious pasta.

It is strictly cooked and served in capon broth, prepared with fresh vegetables and meat of the highest quality, and always accompanied by a glass of Lambrusco (the local red wine produce from grapes grown on the hills around Modena). Some families have even retained the country tradition of adding a dash of red wine to the broth which to some may seem sacrilegious. The sense of this ancient tradition was to lessen the strength of the broth, once rich in fats because of the meat used, with the tannins of red wine.

Lasagne bolognesi o verdi (Bolognese or green lasagna)

What follows tortellini in broth in many houses in Modena is another, even more substantial starter. Many call it "Bolognese", but in Modena and its surroundings it is used the term lasagne verdi because the lasagna from Modena is prepared with green lasagna sheets, made with fresh eggs, flour and spinach or nettles. The “green” pasta sheets are cooked in boiling water before being lovingly separated by the hands of the rezdora (the lady of the house). These, together with meat sauce, béchamel sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano DOP form the many layers which fill the dish. Cooking in the oven melts the ingredients and makes the top layer crunchy, eagerly fought over during dinners and lunches!

Less famous, but always very popular on the Christmastablesof Modena, are rosette, layers of egg pasta rolled around slices of cooked ham and cheese. All well sprinkled with grated Parmigiano Reggiano, of course.

Another favourite starter is passatelli, small elongated dumplings prepared by combining mature Parmigiano Reggiano, breadcrumbs and eggs. From this mixture the passatelli are obtained and cooked in the broth. Excellent also the "dry" version without broth but with a good sauce made with meat, vegetables or even fish.

Zampone, Cotechino and boiled meat trolley

With a triumphal entry, the meat trolley (for restaurant diners) or meat tray if you pass Christmas at home, offer rich pickings: cotechino, zampone and boiled meats. What unites these dishes is their origin, the need of farmers to use less desirable cuts of meat. In Modena we say that "nothing is thrown away from the pig". Here are some examples

cotechino di modena specialita natalizie modenesi terre di castelli

While cotechino is prepared with lean meat, fat and pork rind, seasoned and stuffed in an artificial casing, zampone is made of minced meat (neck and cheek), seasoned and stuffed in the skin of a pig's leg. Both are boiled and are typically served with baked white beans, mashed potatoes and spring onions with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar.

Concerning vinegar, many families jealously guard the secret of Balsamic Vinegar and maintain at least one "battery" - a series of wooden barrels in which the Balsamic Vinegar is refined. It is customary to bottle and give away their "black gold" to family and friends at Christmas time. In Modena, this gesture is worth more than any gift, it means donating one's family tradition to someone else.

The final element is the mixed boiled meats - the pieces of beef and the capon used for the broth of tortellini – together with the tongue and head of veal. Ever present among these Christmas specialties, especially alongside the boiled meats, is the Modena’s green sauce. It is prepared by chopping vegetables and herbs - celery, carrots, onions, tomatoes, garlic and parsley - with hard-boiled eggs and capers, then adding oil and vinegar.

In case after all this good food you are still a little hungry a great variety of deserts are on offer.

Pane di Natale (Christmas Bread)

Better known as "panone", this is one of the most famous Christmas specialties of Modena. It is prepared with a mixture of flour, milk, sugar, butter and chocolate. Then candied fruit, dried fruit including nuts, raisins, savòr and flavourings like lemon zest are added.

Savòr, or ‘sapore’, is a traditional jam of Emilia Romagna from country cooking. it is still prepared according to tradition using the 'forgotten' fruit varieties, such as the Roman rose apple and the quince pear. These fruits together with pumpkin pulp are cooked in grape must for hours, then seasoned with chestnut pulp, pine nuts, walnuts and flavourings.

After baking, the mixture is brushed with saba, a syrup obtained by reducing grape must in a copper cauldron to a third of its original volume.

The panone is a rich cake that smells of celebration, those who prepare it at home make large quantities so they can give it away or share it over Christmas.

Tortelli fritti al Savòr (fried tortelli stuffed with Savòr)

They may seem to be simple filled half-moon cakes, but for the people of Modena they are caskets of passion and tradition. Fried tortelli are the picture of Christmas in the Terre di Castelli, the dessert par excellence that stands proud on any traditional Christmas table. The preparation is fairly demanding and requires a special pastry, flavoured with lemon and Sassolino – a typical aniseed-scented liqueur from Sassuolo. The pastry is rolled flat and cut into disks and filled with savòr, sealed and fried. The last touch is a light covering of icing sugar and tradition is served!

Bensone

The word ‘bensone’ derives from the "beautiful sound" the sugar makes as you munch on this delicious cake. In fact, one of the characteristics of this cake is precisely the sugar granules that are sprinkled over the top of the shortcrust pastry made with milk and Sassolino liqueur. The other peculiarity is the hard consistency, making it perfect for the ‘inzuppo’, another ritual in Modena where a slice of cake is dipped into a glass of Lambrusco Grasparossa or, for lovers of white wine, Pignoletto from the hills surrounding Bologna.

Amaretti, croccante from Fiumalbo and torrone

I hope by now you have come to understand the great variety Emilian cuisine offers, and for this reason it will not come as a surprise to hear that not all the Christmas specialties of Modena have been presented here.

In many houses in Modena you can find Amaretti biscuits, soft biscuits prepared with almonds, sugar, egg whites and bitter almonds; in other houses you’ll find the famous torrone (nougat) with dried fruit; and elsewhere you can taste the Croccante from Fiumalbo. Unlike the classic version, here almonds are cut into thin slices resulting in a thinner and more delicate crisp. It is rolled before cooling and packaged in the shape of a cylinder.

Wine, beer and spirits

This great variety of dishes and typical products can only be accompanied by notable drinks that enhance their aromas and taste. We can start with the Lambrusco wine in its four varieties: Grasparossa, Salamino, Sorbara and Modena.

On the Christmas table in the hills and foothills of the Terre di Castelli, Grasparossa is a must which with its robust flavour complements and completes the character of the dishes mentioned. Another wine is Pignoletto dei Colli Bolognesi produced in the hills surrounding Bologna and ​​Savignano sul Panaro which thanks to its bitter aftertaste and freshness will lighten these rich dishes.

To round off your meal a glass of nocino, Modena’s excellent digestif obtained from the fermentation of walnut husk.

If you are lucky enough to visit Modena and the Terre di Castelli area during the Christmas season, you will be highly satisfied so far as eating is concerned. With the abundance of Christmas specialties on offer, the warm welcome and the great desire to share, the people of Modena will win you over and you’ll be itching to return. Whether in the summer, when the countryside offers delicacies such as Vignola's famous Moretta Cherry IGP, or in the autumn, a period full of country festivals and events, your visit to Terre di Castelli will certainly be remembered.