Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas and Cappon Magro

It's my first Christmas in Italy, and due to a number of reasons, it's much different then I anticipated - in being that it doesn't feel that different at all. Yes, looking out my kitchen window to the big blue ocean stretching below, squinting in the sun reflected off it's glassy surface, it's hard to believe that this is a day where I hoped for snow for most of my childhood, albeit several thousand miles from here. But thanks to Skype, I can have an "e-Christmas", a few hours off, with my family. And growing up in an Italian American home, most of the foods we eat and then having to run off to a midnight mass isn't that foreign either. Especially the part where everyone loses track of time and hurries to mass late. That's definitely a scene from my childhood.
Cooking all afternoon, then sitting down to eat at a table crowded with family, mismatched chairs to fit everyone, rubbing elbows and shouting to pass the bread - that's the same too. However, my introduction to cappon magro is something quite different, and something I'm incredibly happy about. Cappon Magro is an incredibly traditional Ligurian dish served for Christmas eve, and an insanely labor intensive one at that. Manuel's cousin explained to me that the dish, a huge platter of fish and vegetables, steamed and served in a large tower atop vinegar soaked crostini, dressed with a vinegary salsa verde, is something of a fisherman's joke. As in the old days, the fishermen were too poor to afford to eat a turkey or a large bird of Christmas (a cappon), they made this with old bread soaked in seawater and vinegar, and whatever fish they had around. Magro means skinny. Get it? A "Cappon Magro".
Regardless, there's nothing skinny about it now, and Manuel's Aunt remarked to me the irony in that this dish started as a poor, humble fisherman's food, and now, due to the amount of time and fish in it, has turned into quite the opposite. Bread is soaked in vinegar and water, and placed at the base of the platter. Then a "napoleon" of sorts is fashioned, consisting of steamed vegetables (potatoes, carrots, zucchini, green beans, cauliflower and even beets) and fish (whatever white fish and shellfish are around, and in large quantities) are layered carefully, dressed with oil and salt and lots of salsa verde, which really makes the dish. It's a mixture of cooked egg yolk, salt, parsley, oil, vinegar soaked bread, capers, cornichons, salted anchovies, and cocktail onions, blended until it's a smooth, vividly green topping for the whole delicious pile. Manuel's family kindly made me my own little cappon magro with just fish, since I'm allergic to shellfish, and though it was huge, I ate the whole thing. It's annoying to make, as every ingredient needs to be steamed separately before assembling, which is time consuming, but in my opinion, worth every minute. This is one Christmas tradition I'm ecstatic about.
What does make it feel definitively like Christmas is the same spirit I've felt intensified since the flood. That warm spirit of community has been everywhere, and now it's reflected even more in the sense of the holiday. Our faithful A.N.P.A.S. tent in the Old Town, that has been a dining room, a concert hall, a meeting place and so much more since the 25th of October was last night turned into a church, as midnight mass was held inside, spilling out to the street. We finished with a procession to the cleaned up church in the Old Town, where we crowded inside, saying our final prayers and blessings. Trying to keep my eyes on the service, it was hard not to wander over to that water line, stretching high on the inside wall. You remember the flood, but then look around at all the faces, the smiles and hugs wishing you a Merry Christmas, stop to have a cocktail after at one of the bars open in the Old Town underneath some twinkling lights, and realize that especially now, Monterosso feels so much more alive. It's residents are here, celebrating - a town with a family, a past and a future. Christmas, wherever you are in the world, makes everything sparkle just a little bit more brightly.
Merry Christmas!

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