The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a centuries-old tradition that originated in Southern Italy. Expect stuffed lobster tails, baked eel, crabs, fresh oysters, tuna carpaccio, and calamari.
In England, Christmas Eve doesn't come with a culinary so much as a liquid tradition—the nation sliding en masse into the season of goodwill on a (yule) tide of booze, before heading home to attempt last minute present-wrapping with numb fingers and a spinning room.
In mainland Europe, however, Christmas Eve often means fish.
Lots of fish.
Poland, for example, has rib-sticking fare: thick borsht followed by carp in aspic and mushroom pierogi dumplings, all washed down with a heroic brace of vodka. Sweden, meanwhile, is famed for the fiendishly complex julbord—a smorgasbord of such lunatic intricacy that it can take a clear month of fermenting, pickling, and steeping to get it ready in time for Christmas Eve.
However, when it comes to more informal Christmas fish-related feasting, Italians do it better.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes—also known as La Vigilia (The Virgil)—is a centuries-old tradition that originated in Southern Italy and is still widely celebrated both at home and in Italian communities around the world. Drawing on the long-held tradition of abstaining from red meat during times of religious contemplation, the event was originally rather austere in tone, held in commemoration of the wait for the midnight birth of baby Jesus.
The essential idea is to have at least seven fish dishes alongside accompaniments, but the feast is really an informal and infinitely malleable affair.
This being Italy, however, it quickly evolved into a bacchanalian celebration involving a plethora of beautiful seafood and seriously dedicated wine drinking.
The essential idea is to have at least seven fish dishes alongside accompaniments, but the feast is really an informal and infinitely malleable affair—one that can and should be adapted to taste. It also often goes well beyond the seven dishes, with Italian American communities regularly putting a dozen (one for each disciple) on the table.
Stuffed lobster tails, baked eel, stuffed crabs, fresh oysters, and calamari may make an appearance. Various pastas and soups often feature. Baccala—salt cod—often plays a central role, too: either fried as fritters, in a salad, or any number of more elaborate preparations. The order of the feast isn't enshrined in stone though, there are probably as many individual feasts as families cooking it. Many Italian restaurants in Britain offer their own interpretations of the Feast of The Seven Fishes, too.
"With our menu this year, we're taking old ideas and modernising them a little," explains chef Patrick Leano of Osteria, the modern Italian restaurant at London's Barbican arts centre. "We want to highlight the fish but also the produce. We're trying to think about the accompaniments as equal partners. I want to source the best vegetables—the best supporting actors—too. Obviously, the fish is the star, but the produce is really important. The simpler it is, the better it is, and we have truly incredible fish in the UK. People here are getting more and more excited about brilliant ingredients, which is great to see."
Using fish from Dorset and Cornwall, the Christmas Eve feast at Osteria includes smoked eel, chicory with anchovy dressing, and Cornish mackerel crudo (i.e. raw tartare)—a technique Leano is particularly keen on when dealing with spankingly fresh seafood.
''When it comes to the fish, I'm thinking about what I can get in Dorset and Cornwall and how I can use techniques such as ceviche or crudo, which is what we're doing with the mackerel this year," he explains. "We're doing a beautiful sea bream baked in salt, too, served on the bone for two to share''
Bringing an informal family vibe, Leano serves his feast as a sharing menu—relaxation is the key.
''We don't do tablecloths," he says. "We have rustic wood—we want to give people the experience of eating at home. Italians are all about the home, it's where they feel the most comfortable and that's how we've adapted what we do here''
Sam Williams of fellow London Italian restaurant Cafe Murano is also big on family-style dining. Her Feast of the Seven fishes centres on simple dishes with big flavour: tuna carpaccio, octopus with preserved lemons, and whole sea bream.
''Our twist on the dishes is to keep them simple and clean," Williams explains. "We want to bring Italy to our plates: we've cooked all the elements of the feast before, but never as a coursed menu. This menu encompasses family feasting, but also an Italian Christmas tradition … what more could we ask for?"