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Raised in the sunny deserts of southern Arizona, Savvy Traveler Jeff Biggers always looked forward to the winter holiday celebrations and meals, full of the traditional Mexican tamales and all of the trimmings of his mother's Southern cooking. Last year, he joined his wife Carla in her native town in central Italy, and discovered not only another cuisine, but the ancient traditions and family rituals surrounding it.

In the Kitchen with Carla

by Jeff Biggers, 12/21/2001

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I am looking out the window of Nonna Gigia's - that's Grandma Gigia's - apartment here in Spoleto, an ancient hill-town in the province of Umbria.

The view is thousands of miles away from my usual Christmas holidays at my own family' s desert home. Instead of saguaros and mountains, I watch a light snow flurry dust the unending parade of Romanesque and Renaissance churches. The staircase corridors are paved with couples and families, grandmothers and granddaughters, all locked arm-to-arm, window-shopping their way to the spectacular Piazza of the Duomo, and the loop around the 13th-century hilltop fortress called La Rocca.

I can hear the preparations unfolding in the kitchen. For the next several days, Carla and her relatives will be embroiled in the long hours of cooking and making tortellini and cappelletti, and la torta di Natale or Christmas torte, all by hand.

Carla: Christmas, for me, is all about family tradition. It's coming to grandma's house and cooking together with her, my mother, her two sisters, zia Paola, zia Daniela, just swapping recipes and talking about life.

This wonderful family tradition spans over three special days - la Vigilia or Christmas Eve, Natale or Christmas Day, and Santo Stefano, the day after Christmas - in a procession of lunches and dinners and celebrations, one blending into the next.


That's Carla and her Nonna Gigia, and her aunts and mother. Mangia, che ti fa bene. Mangia, which means to eat, is probably the most important word in Italian.

Nonna Gigia swirls around the kitchen with delight. Her recipes have been handed down orally for generations. She now points at the assembly line of cooks in this kitchen; Carla assists her mother hand-making the pasta, while her two aunts - zia Paola and zia Daniela - are in charge of the fish, side dishes and tortes. This lineup of the three daughters and granddaughter - all of them sharing the stamp of Nonna Gigia's lively eyes - dates back to when Nonna Giga would line up the three daughters on chairs, so they could reach the counter to help. More than 50 years later, they still double-check each other on the amount of salt thrown in the water, or the texture of the cooked pasta.

Francesco, father, calls out in Italian that he's hungry and waiting to eat.

I can't help but notice that, in true Italian tradition, the men sit entrenched before the TV, arguing about sports and politics, while waiting for the feast.

The men, of course, are the wine experts.

Carla's father Francesco tells me how they go straight to the vineyards and local growers to select their wines. Christmas will include the Sagrantino di Montefalco, which was recently selected as one of the top wines in the world.

[Sounds of fish frying]

That's the fish frying, which is part of the special menu for la Vigilia, or Christmas Eve.

Zia Daniela on fish: I pesce cibo magro ...

As Zia Daniela points out, the rest of the menu follows a long tradition rooted in both religion and geography. The fish represents the cibo magro, or lean food, that Jesus handed out to his followers. The rest of the menu would scroll down for pages, but I notice it will include a bowl of spaghetti with black truffles.

Zia Paola: El tartufo negro ... Umbria solamente ...

With a certain glowing pride, Zia Paola explains that black truffles have always represented the Umbrian forests and their bounty. After several courses, we will finally arrive at la torta di natale, with a special Spoleto recipe.

Alessandro: In ogni familigia e piu bella....

That's Carla's cousin Alessandro, who says each family has its own mysterious recipe for the Christmas torte. According to an Italian expression, "in each family, it's more beautiful." The ingredients are potent: chopped apples, walnuts, pine nuts, candied fruits, ground chocolate, and a secret amount of alchermes rum, the liquor of Caterina di Medici. The hard part, says Zia Paola, is making the thin dough, which wraps around the torte like a blanket.

Brindisi alla nonna, brindisi!

The cheers or brindisi have already been launched. Alla nonna: to Grandma.

We take our seats as the first courses are served. While I'll always miss my mother's own country traditions, spiced by Mexico, it would be hard not to be conquered by this Umbrian cuisine. An antipasto of prosciutto, pate of truffles and small fowl, cappelletti pasta in chicken broth, the capone chicken, an Italian suffle made of cheese and gobbo root, fried artichokes, parmigiana, desserts of torrone, panettone....It's time to mangiare.

In Spoleto, I'm Jeff Biggers for the Savvy Traveler.

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