The 8th of December gives officially way to the Holiday Season in Italy. Home from work and school, most people spend the day decorating their houses and Christmas trees, or gift shopping. The first panettone is cut and shared alongside a glass of bubbly sweet wine. Two weeks and it’ll be Christmas: people start to get on their marks with menus, courses and dishes for the biggest meal of the year.
To be in line with this festive spirit, we created a bit of a Christmas-y Italian Table Talk Edition, in an attempt to chat about and share some Italian holiday traditions and recipes from various regions in Italy. As for many other aspects of the Italian culture, Christmas traditions vary from region to region, and recipes and traditional dishes vary alongside them. Most of these traditions are in fact religiously influenced and linked to the cult of specific saints or the respect of religious rules. From the northern region of Trentino Alto Adige, which is very much influenced by German culture, and where people await St. Nicholas on December 6th rather than Santa Claus (which btw is the same person) on Christmas Night; or Lombardy, where Saint Lucy (again, instead of Santa) brings candy and gifts on December 13th; to the Southern regions, where Christmas Eve dinner is the biggest meal and Epiphany (January 6th) is the crucial moment for gifts and sweet treats; Italy shows once again its complexity, its kaleidoscope of mis-matched cultures that somehow manage to coexist.
I had no hesitation about the recipe I was going to share this month: very few things feel more festive and Christmas-y to me than bìgoi in salsa
. As strange as it might sound, this poor, anchovy- and onion-based pasta dish has become my favorite holiday treat since a few years, reconnecting me with my Venetian roots. A big classic of Veneto cuisine, bìgoi in salsa
was once eaten mainly on “giorni di magro” (lean days) such as Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Christmas Eve; nowadays it is consumed all year around in traditional osterie
and local restaurants in Venice, Verona and Vicenza provinces.
Bìgoi (bìgoli, in Italian; I will use the dialectal name in this post) are thick, fresh spaghetti and are probably the most famous pasta shape from Veneto, a region where pasta per sé (as much as bread) wasn’t really a staple as much as polenta and rice. The invention of bìgoi seem to date back to 1600s, when Veneto was dominated by the Serenissima (as the Venetian Republic was called). A pasta maker from Padova invented and patented a machinery to make different types of pasta, including thick bìgoi and thin spaghetti etc., but the preference of people was all for the former, endorsing the success of bìgoi over all the other shapes, and spreading their cult all over the territory of the Venetian domain.
The original recipe called simply for wheat flour and water. The dough was kneaded and then let rest, finally it was pressed through a particular machinery called “bigolaro”, which was maneuvered by hand and whose bronze die was giving way to thick, rough, rustic strings of fresh dough, about 2-3mm thick and 25cm long. The fresh pasta was then hanged on a wire and let dry overnight. One variation of this recipe calls for whole wheat flour and/or buckwheat flour, which resulted in darker bìgoi called “mori” (aka dark). Only in modern, wealthier times, eggs were added to the dough to make it softer and yet more resistant (because of the higher protein content). Before then, eggs were used as “money” to buy other goods that farmer didn’t have like salt and sugar, and therefore were saved rather than used in the kitchen. In even more recent times, some pastifici (pasta factories, small or big) started to make and merchandise the dry version of bìgoi, white or dark, made with durum wheat instead of soft wheat. However, the common feature to both fresh and dry bìgoi has always been the roughness, which enables this pasta to hold the sauce without letting it slip everywhere and end up on the bottom of the pan. Traditional sauces are bìgoi co l’arna (with duck sauce), typical of the Vicenza province, bìgoi co la sardela (with sardines), or bìgoi in salsa (in a fish-onion sauce). For the former it is mandatory (!) to use the fresh version, whereas for the last two both fresh versions (white and dark) and the dry one are in use.
My family has always just bought the dry version of bìgoi (loose at first, but then the packaged version was created and it seemed convenient to switch to that) at the local drugstore. They didn’t have a bigolaro, therefore they weren’t able to make them at home. The sauce was always the same: sardines (or, more recently, anchovies, once more expensive) preserved in salt, which they bought from the ambulant fishmonger or at the weekly market, white onions from the garden (the Chioggia variety) and seed oil. Olive oil was too expensive and too rare in Veneto to be available to a low-middle class household: therefore, only modern versions of the recipe call for olive oil (or even extra-virgin olive oil), resulting in a stronger flavor. Hard to say which one is the “real, true, original” recipe for bìgoi in salsa: every family has its own, “original” one. It’s more or less the same for any Italian regional recipe.
This is the typical dish my family shares, now like in the past, on Christmas Eve: it is convivial, simple, flavorful dish, filling and satisfying; it is made with basic ingredients that can go a long way nonetheless. It is respectful of tradition and yet very modern. Last year, when J and I got married on December 23rd, we spent Christmas Eve day in Venice, but went back to my parents for dinner. We knew what was awaiting us, and we couldn’t ask for anything better.
Bìgoi in Salsa
Here comes the confession: I haven’t been able to put my hands on either fresh or dry bìgoi here in London. So, I opted for the least bad-case scenario: thick dry spaghetti alla chitarra (squared). The result? Good, very good. So here is my suggestion: if you find bìgoi, great! If you want to make them yourself, even better (you’ll just need a meat grinder attachment to your food processor). But if none of these cases apply and you still want to give this recipe a try, go for the thickest spaghetti you can find (not linguine or tagliatelle: they have to be round or maximum squared, not flat), better if made with a bronze die, which give them a rougher surface, and even better if made with whole-gain flours. It still works fantastically well. A last reminder: if using fresh pasta, adjust cooking time accordingly.
- 350 gr dry bìgoli (or other thick spaghetti)*
- 350 gr of white onions, thinly sliced
- 6 T olive oil (or other vegetable oil of choice)
- 8 salt-preserved anchovies, washed
Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Add a handful of coarse sea salt. In the meantime, heat the oil in a skillet, add the onions and cook until very very soft, stirring every now and then, about 15 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of water and let evaporate. Add the anchovies and dissolve them in the onion sauce using a wooden spoon. Cook a few more minutes, until the sauce is well combined. Cook the bìgoi in the boiling salty water, drain al dente and add it to the skillet with the sauce. Toss a few times until evenly coated. Taste for salt and add more if needed. Serve immediately.
*To make them fresh you’ll need about 200 gr of flour (durum wheat or whole wheat or a mixture) for 150 ml of water and a teaspoon salt, all well-kneaded and shaped into thick spaghetti using a meat grinder. Let it dry for a few hours before cooking.
You may also like : Buffalo Ricotta Lemon Linguine