In our region, the Oltrepò Pavese, exists a tradition from medieval times, called la cena delle sette cene, lâ sénâ di sèt sén in dialect, the meal of seven courses. It consists of a dinner with seven fixed dishes, served on the evening of december 23rd. This is the so-called antivigilia di Natale, the pre-Christmas Eve wake. It is also an old tradition to fast on Christmas Eve, la vigilia, the 24th and for the hardworking farmers to survive they needed a good meal on the 23rd. The meal is abundant but also lean, as there is no meat involved, only fish and egg vegetables.
The symbolic meaning of 7
The number 7 of dishes has all kinds of symbolic meanings, as always with these type of traditions. God took seven days to create the world, there are seven deadly sins, the day has seven hours of daylight in winter. There is also a connection with the classical Saturnalia feast that lasted 7 days from the 17th of december.
The seven courses are:
1. Insâlàtâ âd bidràv, püvrón e inciùd – Salad of beet, anchovis and peppers
2. Turtâ d’sücâ – Pumpkin tart
3. Sigùl cul pen – Filled onions
4. Fas dâ Bâmbén cun l’âjà – Baby Jesus’ diapers with garlic (pasta)
5. Mârlüs cun l’üvâtâ – Cod with an egg
6. Furmâgiâtâ cun mustàrdâ – Cheese with mustard
7. Per giâsö cöt cun i câstégn – Cooked pears with chestnuts
Each of the ingredients has a symbolic meaning as well, the yellow-orange pumpkin represents the sun, onions and garlic are supposed to scare away evil spirits, the broad tagliatelle of the 4th course are called the diapers of the baby Jesus. The cod is in fact stockfish, brought from the Mediterranean dried and conserved in salt along the Salt Roads.
An Italian meal is always accompanied by bread and this holds true for the cena delle sette cene as well. The head of the family would put a large piece of bread, the miccone, on the table to hand out pieces of it at the end of the dinner as a protection against sicknesses.
A few years ago we were invited by Italian friends to share this meal with them. A very special occasion indeed!