They are the ambassadors of Made in Italy all over the world. At Christmas, their mission is further enhanced by new creative ideas. This is all transformed into a menu that unites tradition and a longing for exchanges with other food cultures. They are four of the chefs that host the sezione ‘Marco Polo’ Section and who now talk about their Christmas in the kitchen.
In Moscow at the Syr, Mircko Zago he is letting panettoni rise in preparation of holiday dinners. And even if in Italy this is something we take for granted, in reality it is nothing of the sort. «In Russia people eat panettone at Easter – explains this chef from the Aosta Valley, who is now so totally integrated into Moscovian fabric as to cook for Mevdev and number among the judges of Masterchef Russia – but I make it anyway and in time I was able to sell them, so that this tradition is taking hold here as well.»
What do you make for holiday meals at the Syr?
«Well, Christmas in Moscow works like this: the 25th is not a holiday according to the Orthodox calendar. The celebration is on January 7th while the evening of the 31st December is for exchanging gifts and a big dinner. Unlike us, they sit down at the table around 11 PM. I remember being totally disoriented at my first Russian new year: when midnight came. But this is a period when they have many company dinners. I am building a dish that hasn’t yet appeared on the menu, but will combine the flavours of panettone and duck. The traditional Russian dish is Olivier salad, which is richer than our Russian salad. Mayonnaise, carrots, potatoes peas, but also meat and cucumbers, or with variations with apples and crab meat. Another typical dish is “aringa in pellicia”: a very soft tart with pieces of herring, onion, boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, beets, and mayonnaise. Then there is meat in gelatin – or aspic.»
In all of this, do you manage to use Italian ingredients?
«For example, I propose a menu with truffles during the holiday season. It’s a broth made with capon served in a teapot that I then pour over a Parmigiano cream, an egg yolk cook at a low temperature, tortellini, sprouts, a dry herbal crouton and fresh truffles grated on top.»
How to you organise your holiday menu?
«The ingredients from Italy arrive quite quickly, except perhaps the cotechino and zampone (cooked pork sausages) that are subject to embargo. And then there are local products that I always like to use. For example, I select Russian beef: I also use local meat for vitello tonnato (poached veal served cold in a tuna mayonnaise) that I propose in a new version, both hot and cold. Jerusalem artichokes are often used, (they call them “the pear that grows underground” and they were once thrown away) and cardoon It took me years to get people here to understand the flavour of artichokes. At the beginning they looked at me as if I were an alien. I buy many roots, typical of Russian cuisine, which is lately very trendy. One must is celeriac and other roots they are being rediscovered. I respect this fusion between classic Russian cuisine and Nordic influences, especially Swedish and Danish cuisines».
What wines are musts on these occasions?
«There are excellent Russian wines, but I try to propose Italian wines. I have a penchant for a Sicilian Syrah from Planeta, for its excellent quality – price ratio. And wines from my Aosta Valley: a Chardonnay from Charrère, and a Fumin. Then of course something bubbly: a very interesting wine is the 150 Cervino Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle and the classic method of Cave Mont Blanc».
What is on the menu at the Chef Zago’s house for family gatherings in the winter?
«I have a daughter with my Italian ex partner. My Russian companion has a Russian daughter. Together we have a third child, an Italian-Russian boy. So traditions are mixed, and there is always Russian salad.»
What were you childhood Christmas dinners like?
“I have to delve into my memories. From Sicily, my mother’s homeland, we would have crates of oranges, mandarins, and frutta martorana. Even today I am crazy about seasonal fruit and use lots of citrus fruits in my cooking. I even make my own candied fruit for my panettoni.»