Some scents stay with us forever, bringing back the best memories at any given time, whenever, wherever.
When we enter a new environment we are always welcomed by its scent, immediately triggering a feeling. Sugo cooking on a stove might comfort us with the memory of our grandparents house, while chestnuts burning on a fireplace, or the buttery smell of recently unwrapped panettone will remind us of the festive season.
I have to disclose that I never had a large or loud family obsessed with food and Christmas traditions. I am also disadvantaged growing up in a small Northern town on the shores of Lake Orta which has no apparent unique holiday recipe. My mother is a practical woman; yes, she’s a great cook, but her cooking is sporadic and limited to special occasions: a Sunday, a birthday, a holiday. Only then her abundant Italian style cooking kicks in, yet never leaving behind a nordic allure of modesty.
Despite my upbringing I can connect with a few particular smells that remind all Italians of this special time of year. These smells mean home, family and traditions:
SCENT OF WOOD MUSK: It’s tradition in my family, like in many Italian homes, to create a nativity scene from (nearly) scratch, which means moss. Lots of moss. Fluffy, green, moss that sometimes we would dry out and preserve for the upcoming year. Months after Christmas we would still smell the earthy scent it left behind and smile at the forever memory of carefree family moments.
ORANGE ZEST dried on the heater or better, the fireplace. I was told by my mother that back in the 80s, when her Christmas was much more modest, children received clementines and ‘spagnolette’ (peanuts) as gifts. For how otherworldly it may sound today, the smell of clementines is still a memory of the festivities. They are always present at the end of our Christmas meal, and while we peel one after the other in between a conversation and a sip of grappa it gives us all a purpose to linger around the table, together. A luxury of ‘simpler’ times that is a big part of everyone’s present and collective memory.
UOVA MIMOSA, as my mom calls them. Boiled eggs emptied of their yolk, homemade mayonnaise (for a big occasion!) and anchovies to fill the empty hole. Grated yellow yolk and parsley on top to serve. One recipe we will never have too much of.
BRASATO (braised beef), the recipe which is passed through generations, only cooked with grandma’s supervision, is a real secret. Nobody is crazy about brasato per se, but its rich taste accompanies puré or polenta — the mix of the two make you realise it’s the holiday season.
PANETTONE o PANDORO? Some people love both, others eat one of the two religiously. These two deserts are staples of festivities. No house has less than 3 during the holiday season, it’s a Christmas mainstay and its smell, its buttery, sweet, yeasty aroma floods our home and inebriates our brain.
VIN BRULE’ or warm wine (Glühwein for the Germans). Akin to a warm Sangria, but rich in cinnamon, anice, lemon zest and much more, this drink is usually sipped in front of churches after Christmas Mass or in special winter celebrations. When I was young we made tours the night of the 24th passing from one church to the other getting tipsy on vin brulé.
Lastly there are the things we cannot truly taste or smell.
Those scents that are floating in the air, they are in every breath and light we spot around us.
They are about waiting, preparing, expecting.
There is the rush, the day before Xmas, to find last gifts, pack them nicely and try to surprise the receiver.
We could sense magic in the air, it was everywhere, waiting for those packages to appear in the morning and not knowing exactly how our parents did it.
Christmas and holidays are a nostalgic representation. Every year, we take a bit from the past and add some new. New traditions mixed up with rituals become once again, a new celebration. This is perhaps why every year is so uniquely special.