Tuesday 23 January 2018

Lucinda O'Sullivan: 'When Christmas dinner is over it's not the turkey you'll remember, it's the people'

They may drive you crackers, but the people you love are the most important feature of any Christmas dinner

Formidable food: Stefano Crescenzi enjoys an Italian Irish Christmas with his wife Eileen
Formidable food: Stefano Crescenzi enjoys an Italian Irish Christmas with his wife Eileen

Lucinda O'Sullivan

The traditional Christmas dinner may vary in different countries around the world, but one thing remains the same no matter where you are - the people around your dining table on Christmas Day are what's really important.

As the years go on, this has become more and more relevant to me, as I miss those who are gone and we honour and remember them on the table with little pieces of tableware or trinkets they had given me.

For all of my married life, we had my Auntie Clare for Christmas and she made the plum pudding. She was a great lady of the stiff upper lip variety, who lived to be two months off 100 years old - indeed she came to us for every Bank Holiday weekend of my married life.

While married, she had no children and was regarded as the matriarch of the family, with no one ever wanting to do anything that might shock Auntie Clare. She would invariably greet me with "your fringe is too long, you've put on weight, the boys' hair is too long, we have to go to Mass in the morning". I always took it on the chin, but one year she did really push it.

On Christmas Eve that year, I was worried about our eldest child in hospital, but I drove up to Enniskerry in icy weather to collect a free-range goose, as Brendan picked up Auntie at Heuston Station.

Next morning, the show went on and I had the usual open-house drinks for all the friends and family before finally, exhausted, I proudly carved up the goose and put it in front of her.

Tasting it carefully, ramrod stiff and looking down her longish nose, she said, "this goose never ran around any farmyard."

She was probably right - she usually was - but it was the only time I was absolutely livid and, when it came to her plum pudding, she remarked that she must have forgotten to put in some particular spice, and I childishly agreed that it didn't quite taste the same as usual.

She was mortally wounded, and I keep thinking now: if only I had her and that plum pudding at my table this Christmas.

All of this came back to me last week as I talked to restaurateur Eileen Dunne Crescenzi about her new book Festa: A Year of Italian Celebrations, Recipes and Recollections. It's a wonderful book, full of colourful lore and Italian traditions, a life into which she was propelled when she left Dublin as a 17 year old in the 1970s to go to art school in Rome. She married her first husband, a Chinese sculptor and fellow student, and had her first child, Ghinlon, at 21.

They later divorced and Eileen met and married the love of her life, Stefano Crescenzi, with whom she has three children - Sean (26), Aisling (24) and Federica (22).

"When I met Stefano I was kind of dragged into this whole Italian set-up. The Italians are so curious. It took me a long time to understand why. I thought it was so intrusive in the beginning.

She talks of how the setting of the table is so important in Italian homes, of how the tablecloth is ordered from lengths of fabric chosen for design, quality and function, of how Nonna Valentina used to painstakingly embroider elaborate tablecloths for her children and grandchildren, and of how they miss her.

Each family member or friend is associated too with the dish they used to make and bring along to the party. While an Italian Christmas involves three or four days of incessant celebratory eating, La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve) is the big event.

From Rome down the coast to Sicily, and in the Crescenzi household in Dublin, it's all about fish on Christmas Eve. Eileen recalls how Nonna Valentina created a sublime tuna tartare with mayonnaise, served with a glass of her homemade Vov - an Italian egg nog (featured in the book) - while Auntie Anna prepared a heavenly fish sauce and Annarella transformed hake, sea bream and monkfish into delectable morsels.

"I like to host big dinners, I don't like to cook for six people, it has to be 26. I love getting loads of people together - conversation flows, and I love that. When I was thinking of writing the book, I was thinking of all the festas throughout the year, and all the memories came flooding in, particularly of Stefano's family.

"His parents are gone, his grandparents are gone, and they were very much part of our lives. It reminded me of how important family get-togethers are - and I thought I'd better start cooking to be remembered by my kids, my grandchildren, nieces, and all the rest.

"This Christmas Eve I am planning on doing a carpaccio of fish, followed by two or three mains such as tonnarelli pasta with shellfish, scallops with saffron and whole sea bream with salad."

Eileen and Stefano do the traditional Irish turkey dinner on Christmas Day, but she gives great recipes for vitello tonnato - an Italian classic of veal with tuna mayonnaise - and fillet of pork with speck and apple sauce (popular in Rome on Christmas Day). She also tells her readers a great story about her father, who was known locally in Pearse Street as 'Fred The Red'.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable book, with great recipes, which will remind you of all your much-loved missing guests. Certainly on Christmas morning I am going to raise a glass of Vov to two beloved and formidable ladies - Auntie Clare and Nonna Valentina.

'Festa' is published by Gill & MacMillan, €24.99

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