Patti Chiari - Christmas cards and confusion

Fri, 12/03/2010 - 11:10

“Ma siete tutti pazzi!” [“You’re all mad!”] exclaimed my friend Lucia when I told her I intended to spend Wednesday evening writing my Christmas cards. Italians buy and send very few Christmas cards and, if they think I am mad because I send so many, they conclude that there is no hope for me when I tell them about the Anglo-Saxon Christmas card list. Another Modican friend put it all rather succinctly:

“The only card I used to send was to you when you were in Wales. But now you’re here and I see you so I don’t need to send you a card.”

I must admit that I still haven’t quite accepted this logic and I continue to give cards to friends I see every day, to shopkeepers who give me good service [nearly all of them!] and to casual acquaintances. I have no idea what my Modican friends actually do with my cards because I never see them on display and, like a true Brit, I take this omission quite seriously.

Traditionally Italians decorate their houses for the Immacolata holiday on 8th December and in Sicily that means bringing out the family presepe [crib] and its figurines. Usually the figurine of the baby Jesus is added to the crib on Christmas Eve. Many people now have a Christmas tree in their homes as well and Santa figures are increasingly seen enjoying the December sunshine on the balconies of Modica.

As torrone [nougat] cobaita [a Sicilian variant containing sesame seeds] and panettone cakes appear in the shops, another Christmas essential is piled onto the vegetable sellers’ lorries: bright, purple- sprouting broccoli is everywhere during this season and it is the main ingredient of the focaccia breads that the Modicani will eat on Christmas Eve. Or is it? The “scacce” or focacce come fresh from the oven, the pastry smells wonderful, your host tells you the filling is “broccoli”, you bite into it and… it is cauliflower. For with the broccoli comes a linguistic enigma: Is “broccoli” in Sicily the vegetable we call “broccoli” in the UK or is it cauliflower?

“Broccoli” is usually labelled as such when being sold and I would ask for “cavolfiore” if I wanted cauliflower [which I wouldn’t as I hate it] but it is a word I have never heard a Sicilian utter. Some people refer to cauliflower as “broccoli bianchi” [white broccoli].

Quite why the Sicilians insist on calling cauliflower “broccoli” when it is “cavolfiore” in the rest of Italy I have been unable to ascertain but I suspect it is because the dialect word for white cauliflower is “vrucculi”.

So on Christmas Eve I’ll be taking only small bites of the “broccoli”-filled focacce and large ones of all the other types of focacce on offer: they come filled with sausage, tomatoes, aubergines, Jerusalem artichokes and potato. But when it comes to broccoli-filled “scacce”, my Modican friends tell me, it’s always really cauliflower – unless it happens to be broccoli.