Given its name, one would assume the Feast of the Seven Fishes is of, quite literally, biblical proportions, with a rich culinary history to match. But like many of today’s festive customs, it’s more of a nostalgic nod to its religious roots than a strictly observed ritual, uniform across all regions. However, you won’t see many Tuscan tables on Christmas Eve without a fish course on the menu.
As with most Christmas stories, the convention of eating fish on Christmas Eve begins with religious rites—in this case, the Catholic rule of abstinence. In the Catholic Church, abstinence and fasting play a key role in many ceremonies, most notably during Lent or on the eve of important holy days. Avoiding meat (and animal products, including most dairy goods) is the most common form, and in strict cultures is observed every Friday. This gave birth to the custom of eating fish instead, often fried in oil to avoid using butter.
And so to Christmas. Christmas Eve is one of the most important dates in the Catholic calendar, and as such is a day of abstinence culminating with attendance of Midnight Mass. Given Italy’s Catholic heritage, this tradition is particularly strong here, and is known as La Vigilia, or the ‘vigil’—awaiting the birth of Jesus. A celebratory meal of fish is usually prepared and served during the evening before mass, but there are no hard and fast rules on what said feast should entail. That’s generally left up to regional variables and family preferences. Being cheap and easy to find, baccalà (salted cod) is a popular choice, while eel is also considered a delicacy in many parts.
It’s not clear exactly when the Feast of the Seven Fishes became a “thing”, but it seems that the traditional Christmas Eve fish supper gradually lost some of its association with abstinence, and became more about a celebratory feast of all things fishy—instead of one fish course, why not seven? The number seven has plenty of religious significance, being the most frequent number in the Bible (apparently featured over 700 times), and also signifying the “completion”, the number of days it took God to create the world. There are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church, and Rome is surrounded by seven hills… though it’s best to take these associations, like your fish, with a pinch of salt.
Indeed, the number of courses is not even fixed—some families opt for courses based on the number of apostles, ranging from eleven to thirteen, depending on whether you include Judas and Jesus. Three courses is a much more restrained option, referring to the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. With so many courses to play with, the options for the fish used are just as flexible. Fish, seafood and shellfish can all play a part, and often the latter courses are fleshed out with desserts and pastries to halt a pescatarian overload.
Confused? Trying to pin down the Christmas Eve fish feast with strict definitions appears to be a hopeless task, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. One of the joys of the holidays is taking ideas and making them personal, adding family twists, regional quirks and individual flourishes to make each tradition memorable.
RECIPE / Fried cod with cauliflower “affogato”
Easy, serves 4, 60 minutes
Recipe by Antonella la Macchia
food blogger + personal chef
800g of cod fillet / 2 lemons / 5 tbsp of semolina flour / salt / black pepper / Cauliflower ‘affogato’ / 1kg cauliflower, sliced / extra virgin olive oil / 80g of black olives, chopped / 200g of Provolone cheese, thinly sliced / 500ml of red wine / 2 spring onions, finely chopped / salt / black pepper
1) To make the cauliflower affogato, spread layers of the ingredients in a medium saucepan like a lasagna. Start with a little extra virgin olive oil, then a layer of the black olives and onions, then a layer of the cauliflower, cheese and a seasoning of salt and pepper.
2) Repeat this process until you have used all the ingredients, then pour over the wine, cover with a lid and cook on a low heat for about 40 minutes. Don’t stir the ingredients during the cooking, but shake the pan occasionally, adding a little water if necessary.
3) To make the fried cod, cut the fish into rectangular portions and pat dry with kitchen paper.
4) Coat each portion in the flour and shake off any excess. In a medium frying pan, heat the extra virgin olive oil and fry the fish for about 5 minutes on each side.
5) Drain the fish on kitchen paper and sprinkle over the chopped parsley. Serve hot with the cauliflower affogato and a garnish of lemon slices.
This Fried Cod recipe first appeared on Great Italian Chefs.