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Introducing the Feast of the Seven Fishes

Introducing the Feast of the Seven Fishes

by Clare Gazzard 04 December 2015

Many Christmas traditions have their origins shrouded in the mists of time, and we often forget why we continue to follow them every year. One such ritual is that of eating fish on Christmas Eve, with the little-known ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes’ being an epic example.

With a name such as this, one would assume this fishy feast is of, quite literally, biblical proportions and with a rich culinary history to match. But like many festive customs, it appears to be more of a nostalgic nod to its religious roots than a factual account. Although often credited as an Italian tradition, the Feast of the Seven Fishes seems to be more of an American invention than anything else, with Italian-American families trying to conjure up a feeling of home while adding a little ‘bigger is better’ attitude.

As with most Christmas stories, the convention for eating fish on Christmas Eve begins with religious rites – in this case, the Catholic rule of abstinence. In the Catholic church, abstinence and fasting play a key role in many ceremonies, most notably during Lent or on the eve of important holy days. Avoiding meat (and products produced by animals including most dairy goods) is the most common form of abstinence, and in strict cultures is observed every Friday. This gave birth to the custom of eating fish instead, often fried in oil to avoid the use of butter – indeed, in several cultures, Fridays are still associated with fried fish.

And so to Christmas. Christmas Eve is one of the most important dates in the Catholic calendar, and as such is a day of abstinence leading up to the attendance of midnight mass. In Italy, where the majority of people are Catholic, this tradition is particularly strong and is known as La Vigilia, or the ‘vigil’ – awaiting the birth of Jesus. A celebratory meal of fish is usually prepared and served during the evening before mass, but there seem to be no hard and fast rules on what this feast should entail, relying more on regional diversities and family preferences. Although most prevalent in the regions of southern Italy, where fresh fish and seafood from the coast are particularly abundant, the fish used can range from braised octopus to indulgent lobster throughout the country. Baccala (salted cod) is a popular choice as it’s relatively cheap and easy to find, while eel is also considered a delicacy in many parts.

Across the pond

With the emigration of many Italian families to America, some of these traditions also crossed the Atlantic and were adapted to suit. It’s not clear exactly when the Feast of the Seven Fishes became a ‘thing’, but it seems that the traditional fish supper on Christmas Eve lost some of its association with abstinence over time, and became more about a celebratory feast of all things fishy – instead of one fish course, why not seven? The number seven has plenty of religious significance, being the most frequent number in the Bible (apparently featured over 700 times), and also signifying the ‘completion’, the number of days it took God to create the world. There are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church, and Rome is surrounded by seven hills… though whether any of these bear any reference to seven fishes is open to interpretation.

Indeed, the number of courses is not even fixed – some families opt for courses based on the number of apostles, ranging from eleven to thirteen, depending on whether you include Judas and Jesus. Three courses is a much more restrained option, referring to the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. With so many courses to play with, the options for the fish used seems to be just as flexible. Fish, seafood and shellfish can all play a part, and often the latter courses are fleshed out with desserts and pastries to halt a pescetarian-overload.

Confused? Trying to pin down the Christmas Eve fish feast to an exact tradition appears to be a hopeless task, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. One of the joys of Christmas is taking ideas and making them personal, adding family twists, regional quirks and individual preferences to make each tradition unique. Whether celebrating with a religious focus or not, eating a pescetarian supper on Christmas Eve is a wonderful way to break up some of the traditional meat-heavy indulgences of the festive season. If abstaining from meat and dairy, a pan-fried fish flavoured with herbs or a hearty seafood stew can be simple yet delicious, or if you’re happy to use dairy, a creamy fish pie or buttered lobster could fit the bill for something more luxurious. Whether fully fish-focused or with just a smattering of seafood, this is one delicious Christmas tradition to enjoy.

Ideas for your own feast

To attempt the full seven-course (or more) affair would need a little planning, but needn’t be a daunting task. Starting with a mix of canapé-style dishes would ensure the meal is not too heavy, before some lighter mains and sweets to finish.

Theo Randall’s or Adam Gray’s eel canapé recipes are particularly apt for an Italian theme, while a citrus-cured sea bass blini is perfect finger food. For something a little more indulgent, Nathan Outlaw transforms a rich fish pie into a tiny portion, making it perfect for one of the courses.

A ceviche, gravadlax or cured fish would help refresh the palate, before serving a more unusual ingredient such as octopus, cuttlefish or the traditional baccala, which would add a nice level of diversity.

For one knockout dish, a whole baked fish, such as Galton Blackiston’s snowed-under salmon, or lobster would make a stand-out centrepiece and could be served with any number of vegetable sides to suit.

Without being too rich, a festive dessert such as Alyn Williams’ clementine trifle would make a delicious ending, followed by some petits fours to nibble on.

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