Italian Christmases have as many food traditions as there are dining tables in the country. My family’s has always been capon, a flavor that for me defines the delicious emotions tied into the Christmas meal. Even as life and love took me to the United States and my time and loyalties split between mine and my husband’s native countries, I have never renounced Christmas capon. In fact, I converted my husband’s family to it and away from turkey.
What is a capon? It is a young chicken whose manhood has been done away with. The surgical neutering is carried out within the 3rd month of the spring cock’s life. The newly minted capons find their new identity following a cereal based diet, that starts as ground and moves to whole kernels. In the last month of their lives they are fed by-products of dairy production. Capons are typically harvested between the 7th and 8th month of life. Those 8 months are sheltered and rather lazy. They live indoors with no need to run and peck for food.
The combination of gelding, diet, young age and a worry-free life produces a large bird with a meat that is delicately flavorful, distinctively sweet and perfectly moist. It is, however, an expensive agricultural endeavor. Capons fetch a premium on the market and are mostly a Christmas luxury. Capon production starts in the late winter and peaks in early spring, already by mid-fall they make timid appearances in better butchers cases. By the beginning of December, they are a common sight even on supermarket meat counters.
A capon’s average weight is 5 to 6 pounds. It has a layer of fat under the skin, its flesh is light and uniform in color. Most capons have pink skin, but a few different breeds and some diets can yield a yellow skin. A fresh capon has firm flesh and a smooth, lightly damp skin. It should smell sweetly neutral, a fishy odor betrays a low quality feed diet. If the head and feet are still attached, its eyes should be bright, not sunken and no external sexuality markers — crest, wattles and long spurs — should be visible.
Even though their numbers are a speck of the poultry market, capons still grow in both industrial and small scale settings. Industrially raised capons are kept in batteries off the ground and fed on a forced schedule. Small farms capons roam on the ground of an indoor shelter and feed on need. The result — and the critical way to distinguish the two — is the distribution of fat under the skin; it is evenly distributed in the better quality birds, but gathered in yellowish clumps on the battery raised ones. Additionally, pastured capons are sold with head and feet still attached and their giblets, while those produced in large scale are stripped.
The luckiest of us know a farmer who raises and harvests just a few capons every year, as a way to round up their income. These birds come with untold flavor and the trust of relationships formed over generations. The ability to source a capon this way is still possible in small rural-adjacent town like my own of Perugia.
It is a little more challenging for urban dwellers. There are a few regional breeds — mostly from Piemonte, but also one from Le Marche and one from Friuli Venezia Giulia — that have a state sanctioned pedigree. To get one’s hands on one of these prized capons, city people start negotiating with their trusted butcher as early as October.
While it is delightful roasted, poaching is the preferred way to cook a capon, as the broth it leaves behind is considered by connoisseurs the only option for the traditional Christmas filled pastas — tortellini or cappelletti in brodo. My mother poached hers, as did my grandmothers before her, and so do I.
Capons are not as obvious to source in the United States. Many states, including my own, California, ban the practice, but my trusted butcher has an Iowa connection and every year he’s able to get me my one capon. Not this year. As if 2020 hasn’t been bad enough, it is also leaving me both stuck in San Francisco and capon-less.
Apparently the smaller Thanksgiving gathering forced by the pandemic have curtailed the taste for a certain very large, inexpensive bird whose flavor is never as majestic as its size. Curious diners have ventured into other kinds of edible feathered species, smaller in size but superior in taste. The capon harvest meant for the Christmas season was used up by Thanksgiving and so I will have to settle for a chicken.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I have never thought or spoken about capon as much as I have in 2020. I was reminded of my childhood in the Umbrian countryside, and the gentlemen whose job it was to perform the task needed to transform a chicken into a capon. They were called castrini and each area had its own, to whom people reverently referred as Il Castrino — you see the common word root, right?
Our Castrino — whose real name I never knew — was the grandfather of Claudio and Sandro, two boys who lived down the dirt street connecting our home to the main road. A wiry and kind man, a little bent at the nape, Il Castrino lived by the slow clock of nature. Whenever he wasn’t gelding farm animals, he toiled away with small repairs, maintained gardens, foraged whatever the season gifted.
He wasn’t chatty, but he had a benign ever-presence that I still remember after almost half a century. I remember that he’d give me lily pads to use as umbrellas, that he would hand me leaves I’d always chew with curiosity and trust. I remember that he always carried a hand woven basket and sported a jacket that was well worn and torn but always impeccably clean and pressed. I remember understanding that both the jacket and the basket had something to do with the mysterious whatever for which he was always ready.
One day, as he was repairing his grandchildren’s roof, he misplaced a foot. My nanny came in shouting “Il Castrino é caduto dal tetto!” -The Castrino fell from the roof. In the commotion that followed his grandkids were brought in to play with us and be distracted from a potential worst outcome. The day was tense but it all turned out for the best. Il Castrino was badly bruised but he lived and was back in time to save many a Christmas table.
This year, even with a chicken, I will continue to weave the secret language of family traditions to our table, I will tell my child the story of Il Castrino and his heroism and raise a glass to him, wherever he may be.