OPINION: Is it time to invent a new Christmas dinner? (But not in a tin!)

Andy Newman has fallen in love with tiramisu after a recent trip to Italy

Andy Newman has fallen in love with tiramisu after a recent trip to Italy - Credit: Getty Images

Regular readers of this column will know by now that I am more of a ‘live to eat’ than an ‘eat to live’ kind of person. Food plays a huge part in my life, arguably to an obsessive degree.

Certainly when I go on holiday, one of the first considerations in choosing a destination is what the food is going to be like (and the wine, of course).

And one of the joys of travelling for me is discovering the local cuisine, which even when you think you know it, will always surprise you.

Last week I took my first post-pandemic holiday abroad, a wonderful three days in Venice, which is one of my favourite places on the planet.

If you consult the self-appointed ‘experts’ online, you could be forgiven for thinking that the city is something of a foodie desert, full of tourist rip-off restaurants serving overpriced pizza to gullible travellers.

Certainly such places exist, but so they do anywhere which attracts visitors.

It’s easy enough to ignore them – my rule of thumb is that if there are pictures of the dishes posted outside, or an over-enthusiastic waiter trying to hustle you inside, it’s somewhere to be avoided.

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Actually, if you follow the locals – always a good rule of thumb if you want to find the best food in any location – you will find top-quality (if not necessarily Michelin-starred) food at reasonable prices.

And although it’s the fish which is the star in a city which is all about water, my biggest surprise was rediscovering a dish which we all think we know: tiramisu.

This mix of coffee-soaked sponge, eggs, sugar, mascarpone, Marsala and cocoa powder is so well-known that most people – myself included – assume that it has been a part of Italian cuisine for centuries. So I was shocked to read that the man who invented it died this week, aged 93.

Ado Campeol came up with the delicious pudding by accident in 1969. Attempting to make vanilla ice cream, he inadvertently dropped some mascarpone into a bowl of eggs yolks and sugar, and liked the result.

With some further fettling, including the addition of Marsala wine, tiramisu (which translates roughly as ‘pick-me-up’) was born.

You think of Italian food as being mainly traditional, but tiramisu is not the only foodstuff from that country which turns out to be a recent invention.

Ciabatta, now a bread we automatically connect with the land of pasta, is actually younger than tiramisu; it was invented (like tiramisu, in the Venice region of northern Italy) in 1982, as a riposte to the popularity of the baguette, which was threatening to edge out Italian loaves altogether.

I wonder what British food inventions the rest of the world will be celebrating in three of four decades’ time? Almost certainly not a product which has been launched this week by Heinz: Christmas Dinner soup.

Believe it or not, it’s everything you expect from arguably the most important meal of the year in a tin: chunks of turkey, pigs in blankets, stuffing balls, potatoes and even Brussels sprouts, in a cranberry and gravy sauce.

I know that we are facing a chronic shortage of turkeys this Christmas, but have we really sunk so low that we think opening a tin on the big day and lazily warming up this awful concoction in a saucepan is a proper substitute for Christmas dinner?

I realise people stress about getting the festive meal right, but that is for a good reason: it is the one time in the year when everybody sits down together at the table and eats a communal meal. Surely the laziest cook can spare the time and effort to do it properly, even if the rest of the year is a festival of convenience foods, takeaways and junk food.

If there is one time of the year when you want to demonstrate your love for your nearest and dearest through the medium of food, it’s at Christmas.

I can’t imagine too many people would still be full of the festive spirit if they were served up a tinned soup for their festive dinner, even if it did contain soggy pigs in blankets and Brussels sprouts.

Given the looming turkey shortage, maybe it’s time to take a leaf out of the late Ado Campeol’s book, and invent something completely new to serve up on December 25. It surely can’t be that difficult to come up with something more appealing than the dreadful Heinz gimmick.

Let me have your suggestions via Twitter (@andynewmanpr) or via the comments section below the online version of this article, and I will share the best of them in this column before the big day.

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