The 8th of December gives officially way to the Holiday Season in Italy. Home from work and school, most people spend the day decorating their houses and Christmas trees, or gift shopping. The first panettone is cut and shared alongside a glass of bubbly sweet wine. Two weeks and it’ll be Christmas: people start to get on their marks with menus, courses, and dishes for the biggest meal of the year.
To be in line with this festive spirit, we created a bit of a Christmas-y Italian Table Talk Edition, in an attempt to chat about and share some Italian holiday traditions and recipes from various regions in Italy. As for many other aspects of the Italian culture, Christmas traditions vary from region to region, and recipes and traditional dishes vary alongside them. Most of these traditions are in fact religiously influenced and linked to the cult of specific saints or the respect of religious rules. From the northern region of Trentino Alto Adige, which is very much influenced by German culture, and where people await St. Nicholas on December 6th rather than Santa Claus (which btw is the same person) on Christmas Night; or Lombardy, where Saint Lucy (again, instead of Santa) brings candy and gifts on December 13th; to the Southern regions, where Christmas Eve dinner is the biggest meal and Epiphany (January 6th) is the crucial moment for gifts and sweet treats; Italy shows once again its complexity, its kaleidoscope of mismatched cultures that somehow manage to coexist.
I had no hesitation about the recipe I was going to share this month: very few things feel more festive and Christmas-y to me than bìgoi in salsa. As strange as it might sound, this poor, anchovy- and onion-based pasta dish is hands down my favorite Christmas’ Eve first course. A big classic of the cuisine of Veneto, bìgoi in salsa was once eaten mainly on “giorni di magro” (fasting days) such as Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Christmas Eve. Nowadays, it is consumed all year round in traditional osterie and local restaurants in Venice, as well as in other provinces.
Bìgoi (bìgoli, in Italian, though I tend to use the Venetian word more) are thick, fresh spaghetti and are probably the most famous pasta shape from Veneto, a region where pasta per sé (just like bread) wasn’t really a staple, to the same degree polenta and rice were. The invention of bìgoi seems to date back to the 1600s, when the whole of Veneto was dominated by the Serenissima (the Venetian Republic). A pasta maker from Padova invented and patented a machinery to make different types of pasta, including thick bìgoi and thin spaghetti etc., but the preference of people was all for the former, endorsing the success of bìgoi over all the other shapes, and spreading their cult all over the territory of the Venetian domain.
The original recipe called simply for wheat flour and water. The dough was kneaded and then allowed to rest. It was then pressed through a particular machinery called “bigolaro“, which was maneuvered by hand. The signature bronze die produced thick, rough, rustic strings of fresh dough, about 2-3mm thick and 25cm long. The fresh pasta was then hanged on a wire and let dry overnight. A variation of this recipe calls for whole wheat flour and/or buckwheat flour, which resulted in darker bìgoi called “mori” (dark). Only in recent times were eggs starting to become part of the fresh pasta mix, their higher protein content making the dough both softer and more resistant. Before then, eggs were used as a form of currency to buy goods that poor people couldn’t produce themselves – things like salt and sugar – so their use in the kitchen was rare.
In even more recent times, a few pastifici (pasta factories, artisan and industrial alike) in the region, particularly in the town of Bassano del Grappa, started to produce the dry version of bìgoi, white or wholemeal, made with durum wheat instead of plain wheat flour. What remains as a common feature is the rough surface, better able to hold onto any kind of sauce. Traditional sauces for bìgoi areduck ragù, typical of Vicenza; and salted sardines or anchovies. For the former, the fresh version of bìgoi is used, whereas, for the latter, the choice goes generally towards dry bìgoi.
My family has always just bought the dry (white) version of bìgoi (loose at first, then packaged) at the local grocery store. They didn’t have a bigolaro, therefore, they weren’t able to make them at home. The sauce was always the same: salt-packed sardines (or, more recently, anchovies) purchased from the ambulant fishmonger; white onions from the garden, and sunflower oil. Olive oil used to be too expensive and too rare to be found in a normal Venetian household. Only modern versions of this recipe call for extra-virgin olive oil, producing an even more strongly flavoured dish. Either way, it’d be difficult to establish an original recipe for bìgoi in salsa: every family has its own. Below is my family recipe as it has been enjoyed for generations.
Bigoli in Salsa
For this recipe, choose the thickest spaghetti you can find (spaghetti alla chitarra work wonders), even better if made with whole-gain flours.If using fresh pasta, adjust cooking time accordingly.
350 gr dry bìgoli (or other thick spaghetti)*
350 gr of white onions, thinly sliced
6 T olive oil (or other vegetable oil of choice)
8 salt-preserved anchovies, washed
Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Add a handful of coarse sea salt. In the meantime, heat the oil in a skillet, add the onions and cook until very soft, stirring every now and then, about 15 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of water and let evaporate. Add the anchovies and dissolve them in the onion sauce using a wooden spoon. Cook a few more minutes, until the sauce is well combined. Cook the bìgoi in the boiling salty water, drain al dente and add it to the skillet with the sauce. Toss a few times until evenly coated. Taste for salt and add more if needed. Serve immediately.
*To make them fresh you’ll need about 200 gr of flour (durum wheat or whole wheat or a mixture) for 150 ml of water and a teaspoon salt, all well-kneaded and shaped into thick spaghetti using a meat grinder. Let it dry for a few hours before cooking.