This time of year, "my favorite things" have nothing to do with Christmas (well, with one exception), but with the seasonal products that we can only find NOW!
Who is better than Babbo Natale? The Orange Man! As soon as the temperatures start dipping, I keeps my eyes peeled, waiting patiently for his truck to appear one day on the side of the road. My particular orange man comes up from Sicily a few times a week, loaded with the sweetest oranges, mandarins and lemons. Just take a look at this picture - the mandarin is the one on the left - it is as big as a baseball! You won't find those in the supermarket!
Oranges make me think of one thing: head cheese or coppa di testa. Locally produced coppa is usually only made in the winter, hence the orange zest which is a fundamental ingredient. Pigs were traditionally butchered this time of year to make salumi (which would then be ready for Easter) - the coppa is instead a fresh product, all the bits from the head boiled and pressed instead of being cured. When I first moved to Umbria, I could only eat this sliced microscopically thin and laid over hot bruschetta so everything would pretty much just melt away.... but I've graduated - now I request thick cut slabs!
From boiled pigs head, we move on to the hunchbacks, or cardoons, known as gobbi. Here they are massive - this one came in at 85 cm - that's almost 3 feet long! They are called hunchbacks because as they grow, their leaves are folded (hunched) over to blanch the stalks - this keeps them tender. Parmigiana di Gobbo (cardoon parmigiana) is a staple on most families' Christmas menus - it is an arduous labor of love and I will post the recipe later.
Next on my list of favorites, is really 2 things: The persimmon tree and it's fruit. I love persimmon or cachi trees - they kind of remind me of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree - barren and leafless with a few random ornaments hanging off... But instead of Christmas balls, they are a wonderful fruit... a fruit which is not ready to eat (according to Italian standards) until it is splitting open with ooze and looks almost rotten with the beginnings of fruit flies - appetizing, huh? but, yes, worth the wait of the ripening process!
Finally. They have arrived straight from Milan. Carefully wrapped in golden paper - just taunting me - forcing me to wait anxious like a child for Christmas morning: Panettone. I didn't really get what the big deal about panettone was until I had one from an artisan Milanese producer. Panettone needs butter, and even the best Umbrian panettoni can't compete with those from Milan (trust me, I've tried them all and I know these Umbrians are sneaking olive oil into theirs, or just not using enough butter!). Just 6 days left until I can sink my teeth into that fluffy, airy, buttery, citrus scented wonderfulness!