Pure magic - Christmas in Ciociaria | Wild Heart of Italy
We were asked to create a bespoke Christmas experience for an Indonesian family, reuniting from all over the world to share a very special experience in Ciociaria together.
Flying in from Indonesia, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands, this well-travelled family of 13 people arrived in Rome a few days before Christmas Eve ready for a food and wine adventure like nothing they’d experienced ever before. Several family members had already been to Italy in years past, but no-one had heard of the hidden food and wine region of Ciociaria (within the Lazio region of Central Italy) and we intrigued them so much they were willing to venture back to il bel paese (the beautiful country).
With misty valleys, snow capped mountains, a chill in the air and warm fires crackling – we were getting ready for an absolutely magical Christmas experience in Ciociaria when we welcomed our guests to their new home for ten days, the gorgeous mountain top village of Picinisco in the Comino Valley (Valle di Comino).
Our preparations involved spending time with the locals in the cosy local bar slash cafe drinking caffè corretto to keep warm (‘corrected’ coffee, with a splash of liqueur – our poison of choice was Baileys). This became something of an afternoon tradition throughout the tour, and we managed to convert several members of our tour group to the ritual 😍
Christmas Eve – Christmas in Italy.
Italians celebrate Christmas Eve as the main event, and by noon everything shuts and everyone goes home to spend time with their families – and to commence the feasting. Our family group didn’t quite believe us when we briefed them on how much eating Christmas in Italy involves traditionally, and how long Italians are happy to sit around a table eating.
Christmas generally kicks off with a 6-7 course dinner on Christmas Eve (ok, if you’re lucky. You could be in for 10-12 courses depending on your family), followed by a 5-6 course Christmas Day lunch which stretches into Christmas Day dinner (yep, it is not unknown for Italian families to sit at tables for over eight hours playing games, chatting, sipping wine, telling jokes, teasing each other, eating everything mamma and nonna bring out…).
AND THEN they also celebrate St Stephen’s Day (our Boxing Day) which involves ANOTHER lunch and ANOTHER dinner. Christmas is only officially over on 6 January when the good witch La Befana visits all the children and gives the well-behaved ones stockings full of sweets.
Relatively speaking, we took it easy on our guests with just one fabulous long table dining event a day. Even then they were amazed at how easy it is to spend 3-4 hours sitting around a table watching dish after dish be served. Our advice: eat.slowly. There is no sending back left-overs to Italian kitchens, they will cry.
We enjoyed our Christmas Eve in the private salon of our hotel owner’s apartment in the Bishop’s Palace of our beautiful diffused hotel, Sotto Le Stelle (‘under the stars’) – thank you so much Cesidio, this was an absolute treat.
Paolo served vino caldo (mulled warm wine) as a welcome, which he’d made by adding apples, oranges, orange peel, lemon, star anise and nutmeg to a handpicked Cabernet sourced from a local vineyard in the valley at Santa Guista agriturismo. Cabernet is famous in the Atina DOC wine region of Ciociaria, and was brought to the region in the 1800s when Napoleon’s troops invaded. [Some would say the French brought Cabernet vines back to the Ciociaria region, as it is believed to have possibly originated from the region before becoming extinct and then returned].
Our Christmas Eve dinner presented to our guests included truffle & porcini fettuccine, lasagna, a traditional Ciociarian dish of handmade pasta and beans (Sagna e Fagioli), roast lamb and pork sausages with baked potatoes, grilled spinach and tiramisu for dessert.
We finished our heart-warming family evening with a candlelit midnight mass with our local villagers at the 13th century Chiesa di San Lorenzo and a traditional prosecco in the piazza.
We commenced our tour group’s Christmas Day experience with a traditional shepherd’s breakfast of mulled wine, figs with organic sheep milk yoghurt, artisanal cheese and a berry ricotta tart. Yes, that is how we started the day. Always start as you mean to go on.
Our next stop was local Michelin-star restaurant, Il Mantova del Lago at Posta Fibreno lake for a fine-dining Christmas lunch. Our group enjoyed their long table experience in the private dining room, overlooking the lake where Roman senator Cicero used to pass contemplative moments over 2,000 years ago.
We dined on five courses including pork cheek, cappelletti (‘little caps’) pasta in broth, vegetable lasagna, roast lamb loin with veal shank glaze and finishing with a table of traditional Italian Christmas cakes and desserts. We all needed a little walk after this gastronomic event, and luckily for us the restaurant is surrounded by park land along the Posta Fibreno lake. Strolling along here in between the final courses as the sun set made for a truly magical day.
St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day).
This was such an incredible day that it deserves an entire post to itself – we went truffle hunting with our friends Armando and Maria of Cantina Cominium through their vineyard and forest, shared a five course truffle lunch in their farmhouse accompanied by a sommelier wine-tasting session, and sang to Pavarotti in the garden while drinking Cabernet grappa. Did we mention we found FIVE TRUFFLES? One of them was a highly prized white truffle, which are 10x more pungent and tasty (and expensive) than the ‘normal’ black truffles. Did we also mention WE ATE THE ENTIRE WHITE TRUFFLE shaved over fresh bread drizzled in olive oil.
To be honest, it’s going to be pretty hard to beat this, everyone agreed it was a once-in-a-lifetime kinda day.
In between Christmas and New Year, we explored the Ciociaria region and neighbouring regions – including a trip to Reggia di Caserta near Naples, the 18th century palace of the Bourbon Kings which was modelled on Versailles. We also managed to spend an entire day at Pompeii and not lose anyone. We then took a sneaky trip over the mountains to next door Molise to visit a copper museum (mined in the hills since ancient Etruscan times by the Samnite civilisation) and the ironworks foundry where they have been making bells for the Vatican for hundreds of years. Other days we went walking up in the Apennine mountains (to walk off all the food) and our friend Loreto of Casa Lawrence threw a spontaneous cheese, salumi & wine party one night for us in his CaciOsteria (CheeseHouse) in the piazza of our village when he found out the local bars had all closed for the evening.
The ultimate Italian experience. Not just a long Sunday lunch with family, but a degustation at one of Ciociaria’s most exhilarating new dining establishments – La’ Ristorante in the tiny village of Santa Francesca, Veroli. Chef Laura Quattrociocchi has trained in Rome and Paris, and has brought back her incomparable style to Ciociaria to elevate traditional Ciociarian cuisine to fine-dining. We dined on traditional crespelle (fried savoury doughnuts), a mini-slider with snails (yes! it was SO tasty!), a magical crunchy egg with mushrooms and truffle that oozed golden yolk when sliced, broccoli spaghetti, ravioli with black truffles in broth, roast lamb, Laura’s famous blue cheese gelato made from buffalo milk, and her take on the traditional Zuppa Inglese (english trifle). One of our guests believes this is the best restaurant she’s ever eaten at, and you’d never be able to find it yourself. You’ll have to follow us to Ciociaria so we can take you 😉
There is so much else to share about this magical experience, but we’ll save it for another day. It snowed on our very last day – heavenly.
If you’d like to join us in Ciociaria for Christmas, say hello to us here
We’ll leave you with the absolutely gorgeous sunset view from the balcony of our home village of Piscinisco, looking out over the Comino Valley.
Kelly & Paolo Picarazzi, Silver Compass Tours