Our Christmas Interview
Leif-Erik Hannikainen returned to Venice in 2020 to manage the Majlis Pavilion on the island of San Giorgio for the Architecture Biennale. We spoke to him about pandoro, putti and the joys of a poly-gastronomic Christmas.
What’s your connection with Venice?
Complicated! My great-great-grandmother was Venetian and my mother spent a lot of time here, though she grew up in the Sud-Tirol at the border of the Veneto. I’ve been coming to Venice all my life and the city has always been a focal point for my family, especially when we get together in the mountains in Merano at Christmas.
You came back to live here last year- how does the city feel to you at Christmas?
Venice definitely has the most elegant lights in the world! And the sense of the seasons changing as Christmas approaches is so pronounced. It’s a paradox that whilst Venice is so divorced from nature in many ways, so profoundly urban, you nonetheless feel the seasons more intensely here than many other places. I’ve had to re-learn the rhythms of Venice, where nothing moves faster than a boat or walking pace, and I’ve come to understand how isolated and at the mercy of the tides the city still is, which makes me appreciate the nuances of “Venetian time”, particularly when it comes to food; you can feel it in the market displays and the traditional dishes that mark the stages of the year. Christmas is very precise, it lasts from the Immacolata on December 8th to the Befana on January 6th, and that makes it more precious.
A favourite Christmas memory?
All the children being shooed out of the room on Christmas Eve. The bell would ring and we’d race back to find the tree lit with real candles. My grandmother’s table, all white and silver, with antique porcelain putti orchestrante dancing down the centre. The white ones though- the coloured versions are hideous.
Was Christmas food strictly Venetian?
Yes and no. I come from a diplomatic family who are spread out all over the world- my father is Finnish so there were lots of Nordic traditions, like gravlax and glog (mulled wine) incorporated into Christmas. But still quite Venetian- fish on Christmas Eve before Mass at the chapel of San Giorgio and goose or duck on Christmas day, turned into risotto for Santo Stefano. Lots of dishes that seem retro now but which were very popular in Italy until recently- aspic was a huge thing! Everything had to be a mounted wobble, from the Russian Salad to prosciutto en gelee. The salmon mousse on Christmas Eve was a 60’s splendour, sculpted back into a fish shape with chive whiskers and carrot and cucumber scales. So old- fashioned but I’m very fond of it.
And what’s your festive family row?
Always food! Pandoro versus panettone, whether the broth for the tortellini is better with capon stock, is tongue in aspic admissable, the best way to make potato salad…We speak a whole soup of languages at home- Italian, English, French, German, Swedish, Finnish, but in a way that feels very “Venetian”, in that Venice has always been so accommodating to different cultures. Being here just feels like coming home.
BAILEY’S PANNACOTTA for a bit of retro-wobble
This pudding is great to have around over the Christmas holidays- it’s super-easy to make and keeps well in the fridge. Bailey’s might be a bit naff but it’s yummy and in this version can look austerely elegant sprinkled with some grated dark chocolate. Or go full retro and slosh another measure of liqueur over it before serving.
Ingredients (Serves 4) :
500ml double cream
teaspoon vanilla essence
3 leaves of gelatine (you don’t want this too stiff)
Put the gelatine leaves to soak in cold water. Pour the other ingredients into a pan and bring slowly to a gentle boil, simmering for about 5 minutes. Squeeze the water from the gelatine and add to the pan, stirring over the lowest heat until thoroughly amalgamated. Pour into glasses or ramekins (see below) and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours.
If you want to turn the pannacotta out, grease the ramekins lightly with a piece of kitchen roll dipped in oil, then line them carefully with cling film, leaving a lip of film over the edges. This will make them easy to release but don’t let the pannacotta come into contact with the oil. Fill the ramekins and chill them, then, to serve put a plate on the top, flip the pudding over, lift off the ramekin and peel the film free.
Jerusalem Artichoke crisps with truffle cheese and honey
Canape for 20
These exciting- looking morsels seem so over the top that it would fit in well between the salmon sculptures and gelatinous banquets. But it is actually relatively simple and can be made mostly in advance. We served these recently at the Sugar Street gallery opening and they seemed to have been enjoyed. We think they are just right for parties at this time of year, a little bit fancy but without needing a team of sous chefs.
250g Jerusalem artichoke, washed, sliced thinly, you will need to test the oil so make a few extra
2 drops of truffle oil or a teaspoon of truffle paste
50g of mascarpone
150g of brie or other soft cheese
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Mix the brie, gorgonzola or whatever soft cheese you can get your hands on with the truffle mix ( I found a good one in the supermarket but maybe a small bottle of truffle oil might be easier to find). Use it sparingly. Once everything has been mixed well together, put it to one side to let the flavours come together. Thinly slice, with either a mandolin or skilled swordsmen, the Jerusalem artichoke and bring your frying oil to temperature. Test a few to see if the thickness is what you want, they should be like hand cut crisps. Fry until golden brown, in batches, placing them on kitchen paper to absorb excess oil after.
Now to mount, try and find two equal-sized crisps and add a teaspoon of the cheese mixture in the middle. Essential to finish with a drizzle of runny honey and if you are feeling particularly dazzly, sprinkle some of your premade mushroom powder on top. (Recipe to be found here)
This is one that again would be at home on a table 40 years, ago 200 years ago and today. Granted 200 years ago, it probably would have been from a different variety. It is a really great recipe to add to the Christmas repetoire as it cuts through some of the heavier options and last for days, sprucing up left- over sandwiches and last minute drinks parties. Feel free to play with different spices. I have been known to add everything from bay leaves to coriander seeds.
Anna writes…Somehow I manage to convince myself every year that these last few weeks of Decemeber are relaxing, with a naive day dream that I will be decorating, cooking, tying up work jobs in a cheerful and diplomatic manner, seeing friends and generally being the embodiment of nauseating holiday spirit. However, all evidence from when I have dared to call myself an adult points to the opposite. The countdown to Christmas starts looking more and more like a Domesday calendar and my frazzled demeanour is painfully obvious to all around. The holiday actually starts on 26th December, and these pickled pears are for that day, extremely simple but very rewarding.
3 pears (firm ones are best like Williams)
250gr white wine vinegar
150gr granulated sugar
200ml of white wine
Put all the ingredients except the pears into a pan and bring to a simmer, until the sugar has fully disolved. Then turn off the heat and let cool. In the meantime peal and core the pears. Slice them into half and then thirds. Cover the pears with the cooled pickling liquid and then cling film. Let them sit for 15 minutes and serve. These work well along side meats or as part of sharing plates. We have found that they go well with everything from black salty olives and cheese, to salad leaves and left over rice.
But for now we will leave you with a Buon Natale! from Venice. We hope that you will try some of these not so typical Christmas recipes and emerge unfrazzled on the other side.
Thank you all for your weekly support and we look forward to getting back to it in the new year.