Now while the Irish are spending Christmas Eve doing the last-minute shopping, buying in crates of dhrrink from the local off-licence, getting legless in some overpacked pub off Grafton Street surrounded by lawyers and accountants pretending they’re back in their student days, the simple country folk of Italy are busy in their kitchens preparing the feast that awaits them, not the following day, but on Christmas Eve itself.
Being the eve of a solemn holy-day when fasting and abstinence are required, Italians (as all Roman Catholics, except the Irish it appears, at least as far as the abstinence goes…) were once banned from eating meat. Although the Vatican removed this ban in 1983, most Italians maintain the tradition of eating only fish on Christmas Eve. It seems that fish flesh is/was not considered the equal of, say, sheep flesh – try telling that to a haddock. And when you consider that many families will serve up about 8 different dishes – all fish-based – it’s hard to see where the “fasting and abstinence” comes in… Actually, it’s because this fishy meal was served AFTER the family had come back from midnight mass. God knows how they managed to digest it all before falling asleep.
So anyway to cut a long story short, the Italians eat fish on Christmas Eve, with the Christmas Day lunch being rather a flat affair, as you can imagine. Now, the sort of dishes that are served varies greatly from region to region. The Neapolitans, for example, love nothing better than to tuck into the most revolting looking dish ever invented, the capitone, or (very) adult European eel. I say this because it’s served in skin-covered sections with bone all over the place and if you’re lucky you get the head… the very thought of it all sends shivers down my spine. Urgh!!
One very popular dish and, unlike the eel, something you could bring home to meet your parents, is another classic Neapolitan dish, Spaghetti con le vongole. This has not only travelled out of Naples to the rest of Italy, it has now even breached Italy’s borders and is possibly one of the better-known Italian pasta dishes alongside Spaghetti alla bolognese and Lasagne.
Vongole, clams to you and me, come in various shapes and sizes. Correctly speaking, the vongola is the Venerupis decussata, or cross-cut carpet shell (but I wouldn’t risk asking your local fishmonger for that). There is also the vongola verace, or grooved carpet shell (Ruditapes decussatus), the Tellina fabula, or angle-wedged shell and the Tellina tenuis, or thin tellin. Any of these, or others you may come across, will do admirably in the preparation of Spaghetti con le vongole.
So having procured your clams (preferably not by going down to Dollymount strand) and having checked your larder contains all the other ingredients, you’re now ready to begin. Given that it’s a Neapolitan dish, feel free to regale your household with your impression of Enrico Caruso singing ‘O Sole mio, Turna a Surriento or Nessun Dorma while juggling with pots, pans and apron strings.
Ingredients for 4:
3 cloves of garlic (4 if you won’t be kissing anybody)
extra virgin olive oil
1 kg clams
500 gr spaghetti
parsley (a good bunch)
The first thing to do is nurture and care for your clams. This means putting them to bed the night before you’re going to eat the bastards in a large basin of cold salt water. That will help to get rid of all the nasty things inside the shell, leaving only the clam. At this stage I should warn you never to allow curiosity to lead you to investigate the eating habits of the clam.
The next day, give the clams a good shower to make sure you’ve rinsed off all the nastiness. Also, remember that your clams are still alive at this point, so don’t panic if you see them move (by move I mean shutting tighter, not performing a pirouette).
Next take a large frying pan (preferably not non-stick) and when it’s hot bung in your clams. This, of course, will kill them, so something from Tosca might be appropriate at this point. Anyway, as soon as all the clams have opened, turn off the heat and place the clams into a dish using a slotted spoon. Do NOT overcook the clams, just the time it takes for them to open up plus a little extra for the latecomers (some of them are feisty little bleeders who take a bit longer to die). Some will inevitably not open as they’re already dead, so chuck them into the bin for composting.
Next, strain the liquid from the pan into a cup and chuck out what’s left in the strainer, like the filth that it is.
Having given the now empty pan a quick wipe (use kitchen roll, not your sleeve), pour in a good quantity of olive oil. “How much is a good quantity, Merven?” Oh, I don’t know… use your instinct. It’s got to coat half a kilo of pasta with some left over so I’d say around half a glass (start pouring and count to about 10, neither quickly nor slowly). Then, add your garlic, which you will have peeled and either crushed or cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Allow the garlic to sweat for about 5 minutes (ie cook over a lowish flame), without letting it turn brown, and then add the contents of that cup you have sitting in front of you.
Next, finely chop your parsley (doing this before you begin will make life a lot easier). Once the contents of the pan have reduced a little, add half the chopped parsley and then the clams, just to warm them up and allow the flavours to combine.
In the meantime you will have your pasta pot full of water on the boil, so in with the spaghetti and cook as per the instructions elsewhere on this blog. And don’t forget to stir it every now and then while it’s cooking!!!
When it’s al dente (after about 7-8 minutes), drain the pasta and empty it into a large bowl. Then pour the clams over the spaghetti and mix it all up with appropriate instruments, making sure the oil gets into all the nooks and crannies, thus avoiding the worst of all fates… rubbery, stuck-together spaghetti which neither man nor beast can separate.
Finally sprinkle with the remaining parsley and carry your large bowl ceremoniously to the table announcing in a grave, stentorious voice “fellow commensals, I bear this offering, prepared according to the method of a noble octogenarian peasant woman from the village of Santa Maria la Scala on the slopes of the great Vesuvius, had in turn from her great-grandmother”. Or alternatively, just say “tuck in!”. A few twists of the black pepper mill will add further ceremony and flavour to the event.
Winos will be pleased to hear that I have some excellent suggestions to accompany this little wonder of a dish. True to my personal philosophy that food and beverages should be matched from the same region, try any of these fresh little beauties from the Campania region: Greco di Tufo of between 3-10 years, a rich, green wine, Fiano di Avellino, an intensely perfumed, fruity gem or a simple Falanghina, as light as a wren’s kidney with the bite of a granny smith.