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Buon Natale!: Pietro Leemann’s vegetarian Italian Christmas

Buon Natale!: Pietro Leemann’s vegetarian Italian Christmas

by Katie Smith 03 December 2015

Katie Smith discovers just what vegetarian Italians eat during the festive period by chatting with chef Pietro Leemann, founder of the first Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant in Europe, and learning what he likes to cook up at Christmas.

Katie is an avid home baker, passionate about using seasonal produce and hedgerow ingredients. As part of the editorial team at Great British Chefs, she pursues her dual loves of food and writing.

Just as in countries all around the world, Natale (or Christmas) is a richly celebrated holiday in Italy that spans the whole country, bringing family and friends together around the dinner table to share in the umptious festive offerings. The traditional delicacies of the Christmas season have always been a meat-centric affair, with la carne playing an important role both traditionally and culturally. Indeed, each province capitalises upon the readily available local ingredients it has on offer to create dishes such as cappone ripieno (stuffed capon) in Lombardy, baccala arracanato (breaded cod) in Molise and tortellini in brodo (tortellini in broth) in Emilia-Romagna.

This classic Italian Christmas fayre may lean more towards meat-based dishes, but the food served up on Christmas Eve is traditionally bereft of meat in accordance with Catholic tradition. In the northern Italian regions of Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna a first course (or primo) is likely to consist of a pasta dish such as agnolotti filled with ricotta and spinach, potatoes or pumpkin and in north eastern Friuli, ravioli are often stuffed with ricotta and delicious dried fruits such as raisins and figs.

With so much fantastic produce right on their doorstep, which makes its way into countless tasty vegetarian dishes, it is perhaps no surprise that the number of Italians ditching the meat in favour of vegetarianism continues to grow year on year. In fact, the country boasts the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe to have been awarded a Michelin star – Joia. This Milanese restaurant was founded by Pietro Leemann way back in the early nineties, who at the time was a recent convert to vegetarianism. ‘When we opened Joia, people thought we were crazy,’ he explains. ‘This was twenty years ago when the Italian restaurant scene was very traditional, very Italian. Nobody had considered or even heard of special diets, microbiotics, or even healthy food lifestyles. It was just not possible to eat vegetarian in Italy.’

 
 
By respecting the classics and traditional dishes I have put a twist on tradition through using vegetables to create a playful cuisine.

As Joia’s cuisine evolved, so did Italy’s view on vegetarianism. Today, even the traditional Italian Christmas menu has been updated to reflect this change. At Joia, for example, Leemann’s food ‘takes on a unique style of vegetarian cooking. By respecting the classics and traditional dishes I have put a twist on tradition through using vegetables to create a playful cuisine,’ he explains. Leemann’s passion for food began early as he was ‘born into a family of chefs’ and he started ‘training to cook at home from around the ages of fourteen or fifteen,’ he explains.

Christmas at the Leemann’s

As with people all over Italy, Leemann spends time with his family and friends at Christmas, and of course it is a time for feasting: ‘food is important during this time; the people, the love.’ Originally from the Swiss-Italian border, his family tends to cook traditional northern Italian dishes over the festive period, which invariably involve meat. Therefore, Leemann cleverly adapts these dishes ‘reimagining them with vegetables’ to create his own vegetable-based menu. Some of these creations may include ‘a pâté made with lentils, herbs, butter and lemon juice’ and ‘gnocchi with porcini mushrooms’.

For Leemann, dessert normally takes the form of a ‘homemade brioche’. In fact, unlike the traditional British Christmas pudding which uses suet, Italian desserts are vegetarian-friendly. Most Christmas sweets revolve around nuts and dried fruit and the menù di Natale (Christmas menu) is often finished with desserts such as torrone (a type of nougat) or panforte (a spiced fruit and nut cake) and sweet breads such as panettone (originally a Milanese invention) or pandolce (a more compact Genoan fruit loaf).

 

Whatever you decide to cook up for your Italian vegetarian Christmas, Leemann has two pieces of advice when planning the all important menu: ‘don’t be too serious, be very playful’ because, as he puts it, ’with food you don’t just nourish the people you cook for; you play with the soul’.

 
 
 

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Buon Natale!: Pietro Leemann’s vegetarian Italian Christmas

 
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