Celebrating the 12 days of Yule, as old as history itself…their meaning, and a celebration in delicious food

Humans, since we evolved into discernibly such, are perceptive creatures.  It didn’t take long for our most ancient ancestors to notice that from the day we now call the 21st of December, the Winter Solstice, that the days begin to get longer again.  It also didn’t take them long to figure out that it was twelve moon cycles, plus a few days, to take us back to the Winter Solstice again…and therein was born the 12 days of Yule, which begin on the 21st of December and ends on the first day of the new year.

Well, here we are.

This celebration was born in human understanding of nature, which used to be shorthand for an understanding of the Gods.  While we have evolved away from those “superstitious” beliefs, I wonder if our forebears were not closer to the truth.

The import of the night of the solstice is the concept of rebirth…one that we have now transposed to New Year’s Eve, and our resolutions as well as look back at the past.  In Norse, Slavic, and Germanic cultures, the Yule holiday was born in this moment.  [There are actually 13 days of this period in tradition, and I should like to point out for a moment that the 13th day was female…and historically was considered a good luck day.  That was before the patriarchy waged war on the divine feminine.  But I will get off my wicket].

The 20th of December, the night before the solstice, was called Madrenacht, or “Mother’s Night”.  The following day, the 21st, was considered the day of fate…what you did on that day was thought to presage what your upcoming year would be…”as you meet the year, so shall you spend it.”  And ancient cultures, which followed the sun and the moon, and harvest cycles, this was how it worked, and this was New Years.

And in turn, each of the 12 nights following Madrenacht were thought to be harbingers of their respective months to come.

Taking this to heart, I spent a good deal of the 21st in contemplation.  I focussed on family and loved ones, and I devised a series of menus for each day where I could enjoy with my family a lovely meal, starting with the meal on the 21st.  Mealtimes for me are floods of happy memories, and I hope to create the same in the minds of my own children.  Here are our menus.

  • Madrenacht, 20 Dec.  Coda alla Vaccinara with Polenta.  This is slow-cooked oxtail, braised in a tomato-based sauce, cooked for hours, until the meat is so tender that it falls apart when you speak to it.  It is a dish from the Roman tradition, and one you can still enjoy today in the old slaughterhouse neighborhood of Testaccio.  This dish is inspired by the one I ate with friends at Checchino, one of the oldest restaurants in the area.
  • 21st of December.  We ate a classic Emilian dish, from the region of Emiglia-Romagna, called Polpettone.  A classic Italian meatloaf.  Given the portentous nature of the day, I felt this dish of ultimate comfort good, with a spice profile including nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon, positively medieval, and a slow braise in onions reduced in chicken stock.  Served with a salad, it is a perfect meal.
  • 22nd of December.  I am going through a bit of a chestnut loving phase, and I will post this recipe shortly, as I was told by my astonished children that it was the best soufflé I had ever made—and yes, I do love to make soufflé, largely because you can do almost anything with it…Chestnut and Fontina Cheese Soufflé, made with freshly roasted chestnuts and the divinely subtle Fontina cheese from the Aosta Valley in northern Italy…
  • 23rd of December.  We went out with friends and ate Tuscan peasant food…beans, stewed beef, steak, salumi.  It was hearty and delicious and in so doing rediscovered a fairly obscure Italian red wine called Morellino di Scansano—quite hard to find even in Italy, but usually in New York at a good wine shop you can find a bottle or two.  Full bodied like a Cabernet, but with a bit more bite and substance to it.  Remarkable.
  • 24th of December, Christmas Eve.  Well, the cat’s out of the bag.  We celebrate Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, and go all the way—Christmas Crackers (for the American readers, this is not a “cracker” that you eat, but a cracker that makes a popping noise when you “open” it, and inside you will find some silly jokes, silly hats, and silly gifts.  It is very British, and is an indispensable Christmas tradition no matter where we are.  As always, we had a roast Gammon studded with cloves and served with roasted pineapple.  And by popular request, Brussels Sprouts sautéed with bacon and maple syrup.  This was served with roasted potatoes that were then mashed—and graced with minced scallions, chives and sour cream.  To top it off, we enjoyed a Christmas pudding doused with brandy butter from Heston Blumenthal with an entire candied orange inside.  We all agreed that it was the best Christmas pudding we could remember having.
  • 25th of December, Christmas Day.  Not to be sniffed at, on this day we had a rare breed wild Italian Turkey called a “black turkey” because of its unusual plumage.  It is a rather muscular and small bird, perhaps a third the size of an American Turkey, and four times the price.  It was insanely delicious.  This was served with a chestnut and sausage stuffing laced with sage and rosemary, dried cranberries and a harvest bounty of wild mushrooms.  Along with this we had a lovely light green salad and, you guessed it, my new favourite chestnut cake.
  • 26th of December, Boxing Day.  After so much indulgence, we lightened things up and enjoyed a dessert of bone broth.  I had bought a pot full of gorgeous beef and veal knuckle bones at the market, and this was soon converted into a flavourful, gelatinous stock which we all drank down.  We enjoyed it with artichokes cooked roman style—sautéed with garlic, lemon juice and finished off with fresh mint.  We also “enjoyed” (I know I did; I know they didn’t) one of my first experiments with fermentation, a pickled cabbage slaw.  Salad was the easy way out for the littles.
  • 27th of December.  We entertained.  But it is not beyond me to begin processing leftovers, which is a shame to say, as I started with a delicious sofrito—carrots, celery, onions, sage, and rosemary all sautéed together, before adding, yup, chestnuts, pleurotus oestratus mushrooms (one of my faves), cooked and cubed potatoes, smoked bacon, and various other bits and bobs and prepares one of the classics of Piedmontese cuisine, Mondeghili alla Verza—which are stuffed Savoy Cabbage leaves.  You make lovely little packages with them, pack them together in a roasting dish, douse them generously with besciamella (an Italian flour-thickened milk and cheese sauce appropriated by the French) and bake until bubbly and golden.  Beyond delicious.
  • 28th of December.  We enjoyed a second day of Piedmontese cooking with plin, a pasta filled with roast meat and served in a highly concentrated broth sauce which contains roast drippings.  It is pasta as a vehicle for the most meaty flavours.  Simply yummy.
  • 29th of December.  One of my children prepared a chicken pot pie, a signature dish for this particular child.  It was delicious and a beauty to behold, with real attention to detail on the artistic presentation of the dish.  How do you get a child who doesn’t like mushrooms to eat mushrooms?  Let that child choose to make a dish that contains mushrooms—you will be amazed at what pride of authorship does to one’s taste buds!
  • 30th of December.  Another child prepared Tonkatsu and ramen with a faithful obsession to detail.  It was delicious.  Painstakingly prepared and assembled.  Shopping for ingredients was an adventure in attempted compromise, followed by further trips to the market because everything had to be “just so”.
  • 31st of December…St. Sylvester.  Oysters and champagne.  Foie gras and bioche with sauterne jelly.  Tortellini in brodo.  We parked this Emilian dish here because it is a Christmas classic, and somehow this year we missed it out…and since we all love it something fierce, just had to do it.  This was followed by boiled lobster with a lemon butter.  And to top it off, the most divine tea cake, made with dates and lapsang souchong tea, and doused with a caramel syrup.  It is a British classic of course, Sticky Toffee Pudding, with quite a few twists that make it somewhat lighter, less sweet, and more cake-like.  The adults really loved it, and for the first time ever, the kids held back.  I will post the recipe when I have a moment to write it as it was divine…

There is a message in each day’s food relative to the month it represents.  It starts with loving yourself and works its way towards loving your neighbour.  Have a wonderful year people.  Let’s all do our best to make the world a better, happier, more tolerant place.

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