Clare Finney talks to Borough’s multinational traders about the symbolism of fish at Christmas
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring—or at least, not in Britain. Here, the excitement of Christmas Eve is largely confined to the children, who are expecting presents from a jolly, bearded man. What feasting there is tends to be quite restrained, in anticipation of the bells and whistles blow out the following day. Yet across the rest of Europe, 24th December is a time for celebrating what, for many, is one of the staples of the festive menu: fish.
“They want big fish. Turbot, brill, seabass, monkfish—anything they can serve to the whole family,” says Paul Day from Sussex Fish of his European customers. Come Christmas Eve, his Borough Market stall heaves with Italians, Spaniards, Poles and Latvians on a single mission. As on Christmas Day we share turkeys, geese or vegetarian wellingtons with our family and friends, so on Christmas Eve families from certain parts of the Continent share a whole fish.
“They don’t want it filleted. They stuff it and roast it in the oven whole, just as we do the turkey.” Acclaimed Spanish chef José Pizarro has described roasting a two-kilogram seabass with potatoes and garlic in his home in Galicia. In southern Italy, meanwhile, they serve multiple fish dishes: salt cod, spaghetti laced with clams, smoked salmon crostini and langoustine, as well as a whole roasted fish, in a meal which has come to be known as The Feast of the Seven Fishes.
As with most things at Christmas, this practice has religious roots, recalling the Roman Catholic and Orthodox practice of fasting in preparation for the coming of the baby Jesus. During advent—and particularly on Christmas Eve—large parts of Europe continue to eschew meat and so for many, fish is the natural alternative. But of course, there are enormous variations between countries. In Greece, Marianna of Oliveology describes a 40-day fasting period, during which meat is totally off the menu and fish is allowed on weekends.
Not only does tradition vary across Europe, but also within the countries themselves. Nowhere is this disparity starker than in Italy, where the celebrations are determined not just by region, but in some cases by the individual town.
Luigi of The Olive Oil Company hails from Puglia in the south, where The Feast of the Seven Fishes is still served on 24th December. In his hometown, they also have a separate celebration in honour of fishermen, in early December. “At four in the morning we wake up to a band playing throughout the streets in honour of the fishermen,” he smiles.
Generally speaking, he says, the north of Italy celebrates on 25th December, and the south celebrates on 24th. While that is true, fellow Puglian Germana of Gastronomica and her family save the multiple fish dishes for a light recovery lunch on the 25th, and mark their Christmas Eve celebrations with a meat-laden feast. “We eat all the heavy stuff the day before,” she continues. “On Christmas Day, we have fish and langoustines, barbecued.”
Meanwhile, having grown up with very little festive fish in the north of Italy, Tartufaia’s Federico has since spent most Christmases in Sweden, where fish is an integral part of Christmas Eve celebrations: “We have smoked fish and pickled herring at the beginning of the meal—largely because that’s what’s available.”
In Sweden, as dictated by 500 years’ worth of tradition, the Swedes also enjoy lutfisk: dried white fish, rehydrated in lye and served with potatoes and aplomb across Scandinavia. However, he’s found an even more unusual tradition (to the British palate at least) in his country of origin. “I’ve heard in Naples that eels are the thing at Christmas.” Down there in Italy’s ankle, eating capitone, as they are called, is believed to ward off evil and ensure good fortune in the New Year.
Though she manages an Italian food stall, is three-time parmesan wheel-cracking champion and has lived in Emilia Romagna for 17 years, Ewa of Bianca e Mora is actually Polish. Christmas, for her, is on Christmas Eve, when her family put 12 dishes on the table to represent the 12 disciples (if you’re religious) or to bring good luck for the 12 months to come. They eat fish: “A lot of fish, particularly carp. Carp with gelatine, carp with carrots.” Meat is strictly forbidden.
Meanwhile, over the border in Lithuania, a similar tradition goes on: no meat, 12 dishes and each one seafood: salmon, fish pies, fried fish, fish soup, and “many, many dishes with herring,” explains Urta at Furness Fish and Game—a practice her fellow Lithuanian at Karaway Bakery confirms.
Codruta, from Ion Patisserie, doesn’t eat herring—or any fish—at Christmas time, despite her eastern European origins. That said, those families she knows who do eat fish, do so for good reason: “There are people who follow the superstition that you have to eat fish on New Year’s Eve, so you can sneak through the problems and obstacles in the new year with the agility of a fish in the water.”