When it comes to culinary traditions and celebrations, the Italians have been streets ahead for generations and one festivity that has its origins in southern Italy is the feast of the seven fishes.
This Christmas Eve feast pays homage to the rich marine waters surrounding Italy and the creativity of chefs and family heads hoping to treat their families to something special at this time of the year.
But what exactly is the feast of the seven fishes? Why is it celebrated? And what dishes can be enjoyed on this special day? Let’s dive in and take a look.
The Origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes
Although the precise origins of the feast are not well documented, indulging in seafood on Christmas Eve has been a practice of southern Italians for generations.
In several regions in southern Italy, the feast is known as La Vigilia – The Vigil – and takes its name from the Vigilia di Natale, which commemorates the wait for the birth of Jesus Christ.
And while the Feast of the Seven Fishes is not necessarily a religious practice in the present day, it does have its roots in Christianity.
Historically, Roman Catholics have abstained from eating meat on the eve of a feast day (such as Christmas Day), which spurned the tradition of eating seafood as a delicious alternative.
So, while Italian Catholics have been indulging in the practice of eating seafood on Christmas Eve for hundreds, if not thousands of years, it only became popular in America as impoverished Italian migrants travelled to the United States in search of a better life in the late 1800s.
As for the naming of the feast, there’s no established rationale for why the Italians settled on the number seven.
Some sources suggest that it’s because the number correlates with the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church, while others point to the seven hills of Rome as the inspiration for the naming of the feast. But given that the feast has its origins in southern Italy, the latter explanation is unlikely.
How Do I Prepare the Feast of the Seven Fishes?
As the name suggests, the basic premise of the feast dictates that you need to serve seven fish dishes to your dinner guests.
While some people opt for seven fish dishes comprised of one or two species of fish, others prepare and serve seven different types of fish.
And in more recent years, it’s been commonplace to introduce various types of seafood – including smelts, calamari, mussels and prawns – to accompany the fish that is served.
In terms of layout, it’s customary for Italians to serve seven small plates that can be shared when placed on the table, which is akin to a taster or tapas menu.
There are no rules as to how you should prepare your dishes, and you’re free to get creative in the kitchen and create your own delicious recipes that you know your family will adore.
Just be mindful of the fact that the feast should be prepared without the use of any type of animal product, including animal fats.
So, if you’re planning to fry your seafood, opt for olive oil or another plant-based oil instead of using animal fats.
What Dishes Should I Prepare on the Feast of the Seven Fishes?
As alluded to, there’s no set menu that you have to adhere to during the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and you can feel free to get creative in the kitchen.
When the tradition first started in Italy, people would serve what was available in the local region, which saw baccala – a type of salted codfish – become the staple of the feast.
This is in keeping with the religious roots of the feast and the fact that many of the people who partook in the ritual were impoverished and unable to lavishly spend on different types of seafood from other regions.
As such, we’d recommend utilising our seasonal catch, that is always sustainably sourced. Today, some of the most popular dishes to serve at the feast include:
- Baccala (or any other type of cod)
- Deep-fried calamari / shrimp / scallops / smelt
- Insalata di mare (seafood salad)
- Seafood linguini
- Oysters and mussels
- Shrimp or prawn cocktail
- Stuffed lobster and crab
- Puttanesca with anchovies
There really is no right or wrong dish to prepare on the Feast of the Seven Fishes, as you can see from the list above.
It’s probably best to consider what’s in season and then to create your seven dishes based upon the tastes and preferences of your dinner guests.
You can then accompany your dishes with some delicious Italian wine and some freshly baked bread for a feast to remember.
Tips for Preparing the Feast
Now that you know about the origins and rituals associated with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, we want to leave you with a few top tips to ensure you get the most out of the celebration:
- Always buy fish that is seasonal and sustainably sourced. Don’t worry too much about finding the exact fish that you’re looking for; we can always substitute it with something that is readily available in store.
- Focus on quality over quantity. The whole point of the feast is to give your dinner guests the chance to taste unique dishes – you don’t need to fatten them up with huge portion sizes!
- Pair your fish with delicious Italian wines. Italians produce some of the finest grapes found anywhere in the world. So, do some research into the different types of wine that accompany the dishes that you serve to ensure your dinner guests can enjoy the ultimate Italian culinary experience.
So, no matter how you go about preparing your Feast of the Seven Fishes this Christmas Eve, we hope you have all the information that you need to get started and to serve your family and friends an Italian feast to remember.
If you’d like to experience this feast, then speak to Darren instore or order online from our shop.