Christmas Eve Special: Feast of the Seven Fishes

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Cornish Sea Bass from FC Soper
Cornish Sea Bass from FC SoperPhotography by Neil Wissink

Enjoying a Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Christmas Eve meal

Called “la vigilia” in Italian, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a traditional Christmas Eve meal that dates back farther than anyone can trace. The vigil is part of the Catholic tradition that forbids the eating of meat and butter on the eve of holy days, so instead, Italians cook a variety of fish and seafood for their family and communal meals.

Originating in central and southern Italy, the feast was once a peasant tradition and, historically, dishes would have been necessarily restrained, with plenty of eel and salt cod on the menu. Over the years the Seven Fishes has become a widely celebrated tradition among Italian-Americans, too. Labourers from the south and central Italy made up the majority of Italian immigrants to the US in the early twentieth-century, and overall three million Italians entered America between 1900-1915 alone. As second, third and fourth generations established themselves, the feasts grew more extravagant, with some variations including upwards of thirteen dishes. These divergences came easily enough as nobody seems to know where the “seven” of the title is from, or what it relates too specifically, though some say it represents the sacraments. Now regularly done as a full-on blowout of a meal, renowned Italian-American chef Mario Batali jokes that the feast is “what Italians do when they say they’re fasting.”

"Whether cooking for two or twenty, fish on Christmas Eve is an easy, elegant option"

Whether cooking for two or twenty, fish on Christmas Eve is an easy, elegant option. Since there are no hard-and-fast rules to the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the best option is to choose the freshest fish and seafood available. And since good fish and seafood don’t need much fussing, you can make beautiful dishes with a minimum of additional ingredients – just be sure you’ve got some good olive oil and some crusty bread on hand. With a haul from the excellent FC Soper Fishmongers in Nunhead, we’ve put together our own, London-based Feast of the Seven Fishes, as some visual inspiration for the coming Christmas Eve.

The menu
Mussels with chopped tomato and fennel

Calamari with garlic and chilli

Jumbo prawns with marsala

Spaghetti alle vongole

Clams in white wine

Roasted salt-rubbed sea bass with tarragon

Fried snappers with lemon

Additional ingredients: Italo deli
fish styling: Jessica Kate Weatherup

Words by Ananda Pellerin

Ananda Pellerin is a London-based writer and editor, and Neil Wissink is a visual  artist also based in London. Read more from The Hunger here, and contact The Hunger here.