Ornella, our Christmas Angel
“Il buon cibo riscalda l’anima”
Usually we celebrate our Umbrian Christmas lunch on Christmas Day along with our cook and friend Ornella and her family. That means, for the past 15 years we have the honor of being invited to their family reunion.
The moment we ring at her front door, punctually at 1 pm, a deafening noise raises: Ornella's lapdog, a pinscher named "Gastone", yelps down shrilly through the staircase from the 4th floor of the apartment building, accompanied by Ornellas vociferous greeting salvos.
In a German apartment building, especially on Christmas day, after one minute all doors would be open and angry neighbours would admonish us to be silent. Not so in Italy. Here noise is the best sign for festiveness!
After numerous hugs and kisses, congratulations and a slugfest of mutual gifts we finally sit down in the bustle at the large family table.
The whole extended family is sitting there with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, aunts and brothers, nieces and nephews - at least 25 people - close together at a long table in the living room of the small apartment. The table is improvised, the younger ones are placed on folding chairs. Enthroned on the head end sits the “nonna”, the more than 90 year-old grandmother.
The room is filled with the babel of the adults, raising toasts to each other. The kids rip open their presents screamingly. Then the blinking, squeaking toy racing cars are darting back and forth under the table, in the corridor and on the couch. The elder ones demonstrate all the 7836 ring tones of their new cellphones.
In the thick of it “Gastone” is watching jealously over Mamma Ornella and his various toys. His yapping contributes over and over again to the already elevated noise level.
In the days before Christmas Ornella and Franco, her husband, have prepared pasta dough from at least 30 eggs in their tiny kitchen. They have cooked a meat filling and have made hundreds of "cappelletti", a pasta formed like little hats, which later were spread to dry on sheets across the complete apartment.
Apart from that Ornella has cooked “ragù”, the meatsauce for the “tagliatelle”, a tasty beef stock for the "cappelletti", chicken-liver paté for the crostini, lamb roast and fried chicken. Ornella´s sister in law contributes to the dessert with homemade "torrone" and Ornella´s daughter brings her delicious "panettone".
We eat for hours on end, until it gets dark outside. Then Franco brings his homemade walnut liqueur or a grappa to “cool down" the espresso. It is more silent now and at a sudden we realise that “Gastone” already for a while hasn´t drawn attention to himself. Mamma Ornella goes to look for him and finds him sleeping blissfully on her bed, surrounded by leftovers of tinfoil and chocolate, like a dragon watching his treasure.
Gradually the guests take leave and move on to bring Christmas greetings to friends and acquaintances. Finally we leave, too, infinitely filled with food and Christmas joy. Every year anew we are counting ourselves lucky for having been "adopted" by Ornella´s family!
One time however it turned out completely different.
Wolfgang´s mother was in hospital and couldn´t come to us. On short-notice we decided to go to Munich for Christmas, to bring her home for the Holidays.
So we loaded our car with our two children, our dog, a Christmas tree, several presents, a stock of homemade cookies and the leftovers from our refrigerator. On the way we stopped by at Ornella´s to bring her our Christmas gifts. She regretted very much that we had to make that long journey und provided us with a “Christmas care basket”. Being a real Italian Mamma her biggest worry was that we might suffer from hunger “in foreign lands”.
After a long drive over snow-covered highways we arrived in Munich late at night, rather tired out. Everybody was hungry and in a bad mood, grandma´s home was cold and the fridge was empty.
Then Ornella´s “care package” came to my mind. I fished for a plastic box with ragù, found a pack of spaghetti and – long after midnight, rather on the early morning of Christmas Eve - we wolfed down the deliciously fragrant, nourishing pasta.
Ornella´s ragù is the best in the world, we have been knowing this for many years. But it never tasted as good as on that night.
In that moment we fully understood the meaning of her words:
“Il buon cibo riscalda l’anima” – “Good food warms the soul”
On Christmas Eve grandma´s apartment had to be spruced up quickly, the tree had to be set up and decorated, some shopping had to be done and finally grandma had to be fetched from the hospital. For dinner we had sausages and potatoe salad, according to old German tradition and for the sake of convenience.
On Christmas Day Wolfgang´s sister came to visit us with her family: Thus for a second time I could perform some culinary magic, using Ornella´s “Christmas Survival Kit”. I prepared an almost complete Umbrian Christmas lunch: Crostini with chicken-liver paté, beef stock with cappelletti, and a porc roast (which I had prepared quickly).
Everything was excellent. The only thing we where lacking a bit was the Italian Christmassy noise level...
And after lunch gratefully we had an extra glass of wine in honour of Ornella our Christmas Angel!