Food  |  Life

Sugar and light

Posted on December 12, 2014

A few weeks ago the Christmas lights went up around the neighbourhood. This was a complicated, dangerous-looking process that involved workmen in fluorescent coveralls zig-zagging across the streets, strings of lights draped over their shoulders and trailing along behind them and ladders haphazardly propped up against buildings. One guy, cigarette clamped firmly between his teeth while teetering precariously at the top of a ladder, attempted to hook the lights onto various protrusions (lamp post; a wooden shutter; someone’s washing line) while another guy halfheartedly steadied the ladder from below, periodically taking his hands off of it to yell directions while gesturing wildly, which caused the ladder to shudder violently. One of the other workmen, his own ladder balanced across one shoulder, turned to yell something at someone, somewhere down the street. The ends of the ladder carved a wide, slow circle through the air as he turned, narrowly missing the heads of several nearby pedestrians and a strip of parked motorini.

And then the lights were up, twinkling, and the Christmas season had begun.

The Christmas lights are just one of the things I love about the holidays in Rome. One of the other things is panettone, the sweet, cake-like loaf made with near-deadly amounts of butter, eggs, and booze-soaked raisins that has its origins in Milan but has certainly been fully embraced here. My appreciation for panettone borders on extreme obsession – late November has me watching, hawk-eyed, for the loaf’s first appearance in grocery stores and on bakery shelves.

One of the local supermarkets has temporarily removed the entire fresh produce department and replaced it with a top-heavy mountain of boxed panettone and pandoro – broccoli apparently holds little appeal over sugary carbohydrates – and the shelves of my favourite bakeries are crammed with the loaves; kilogram after kilogram of artisanal dough wrapped in shiny decorative plastic and releasing its buttery aroma in heavy, knee-weakeningly potent clouds.

Between my boyfriend and I, at least one panettone per week is being demolished – large slices served alongside a cappuccino to start off the day, a slice after dinner as dessert, and then of course the small pinches and narrow, almost translucently thin slices (so thin they don’t really count) shaved off and nibbled throughout the day. I’ll admit that this is, perhaps, excessive. The guys at the bakery have certainly started raising their eyebrows every time I request another loaf; one of them asked me exactly how many people I’ve been feeding lately (I told him that I had guests, since it made me look like less of a glutton).

But there is a sense of urgency: The season is objectively short, and once the new year rolls around, the bakery will stop producing panettone, the remaining loaves will be discounted and immediately snapped up by shrewd nonni with a sweet tooth and cupboard space to spare, and then it will be unavailable; discontinued until the calendar reaches November again. And so the seasonal delicacies must be thoroughly enjoyed while they are around – enjoyed to the point of stomachache and sugar crash, maybe, and then their end-of-season disappearance won’t seem so tragic.

Now we just have to find a suitably-sized, not-entirely-ugly Christmas tree (a harder task here than one would imagine, where most of the artificial trees for sale that I’ve spotted seem to involve fake snow and glitter), tuck it into a corner of the living room, and wrap it in its own string of Christmas lights. Between the tree and the panettone, our Christmas preparations should be complete.

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