Food writer Skye McAlpine has lived between the City of Bridges and London since she was six and, for her, Christmas in Venice is a must. “It’s usually a quiet time of year as it’s not an obvious festive destination for tourists,” she explains from her London home as she makes plans for her family to return to their Venetian bolthole to spend the holidays with their nearest and dearest. “But this year will be particularly special.”
Celebrations start later in Italy, compared to the UK. “The 8th of December is the traditional start of the Christmas period as it marks the Feast of the Immaculate Conception,” explains Skye, who this year published the acclaimed ‘A Table for Friends’ cookbook and whose previous books include ‘A Table in Venice: Recipes From My Home’. “The decorations don’t go up until then and you can officially start eating panettone. And my family is obsessed with panettone!”
Decorations in the city are predominantly classic – lots of greenery and fairy lights, while doll’s house-like nativity scenes are laid out in most family homes. “My mother does one every year,” says Skye. “Over time, she’s amassed an incredible collection of antique figurines and the scene has become quite involved. She hangs the angels on fishing wire hovering over the tableau. But there’s a strict ‘no touch’ policy – when I was a child, there had to be a second scene of plastic figurines for me!”
Christmas Eve morning is a bustle of shopping at the food markets for the freshest fish and queues at the bakeries for delicately-spiced pastries. “I love to take a water bus in the late afternoon when you can look inside the lit windows of the palazzos on the waterways and see families preparing for the festivities,” says Skye.
The evening meal is a big occasion for family and friends – a celebration dinner followed by midnight mass for all the generations (“we’ll pop my youngest in his pushchair and hope he sleeps”). It’s also an excuse to dress up, though thick coats and snug boots are essential over glamorous outfits: “You walk everywhere in Venice and the cold gets into your bones.” Skye’s family spend the evening with old family friends and the meal is an extravaganza of courses, such as truffles in a pasta or a risotto dish, seafood maybe served with more pasta, and then a fish main course. The finale is always the classic Italian Christmas dessert, panettone.
“It looks so festive dusted in icing sugar with frosted berries around the base – like a snowy mountain,” adds Skye, who relishes the cake’s many different guises and admits to ‘testing out’ five or six each December. “Although it’s usually served after a meal, paired with ice cream or a warm custard, because it’s basically a brioche bread, you can eat it at any time,” she explains. “We’ll have a plain one, fresh from an artisan bakery for breakfast, then maybe toasted for lunch. We’ll cover one in chocolate and decorate it, then another layered in fondant icing. For afternoon tea, we might have one with marron glacé.”
She adds with a smile, “And it’s always delicious dipped in hot chocolate.”