By Terry Thompson-Anderson and Russ Kane
Art by Bambi Edlund
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American tradition based on the Christmas Eve celebration of the Vigilia di Natale (the wait, or vigil, for the midnight birth of Jesus) in Italy. The feast is observed as a festive, though reverent gathering distinguished by the abstinence from meat and spotlighted by a meal of seven or more servings of fish and other seafood offerings. Of course, being a celebratory Italian meal, wine is often involved.
How, or why, the celebration became known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes is subject to speculation. Some believe the number seven is relevant for its biblical significance: seven is the most repeated number in the Bible (appearing over 700 times), there are seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and there are seven virtues. Other theories for the name point to the seven hills surrounding Rome and even the sum of the biblical number for divinity (three) combined with the number representing Earth (four). Whatever the origin of the feast’s name, though, the meal—with its abundance of seafood delicacies cooked or fried in olive oil accompanied by rich sauces and fine aromatic spices—provides a uniquely diverse culinary opportunity.
“When I talked to my pop, he said that on Christmas Eve the family’s festivities always included baccalà [salted cod cooked in a sauce of tomato, basil and garlic] and smelt with other fishes, served with lots of ravioli,” says Greg Bruni, vice president and executive winemaker at Llano Estacado Winery. “I remember that Mama would always set an extra plate of food out for the Gesù Bambino (Baby Jesus). It was always a joyous occasion.”
As Italians immigrated to different coastal locales in the U.S., the feast took on new dimensions to incorporate whatever the nearby waters provided. For example, the turn of the 20th century saw a flood of Sicilians settling in Galveston and the lower Brazos Valley and northern Italians moving farther inland. The bountiful Gulf Coast waters, with their delicious grouper, calamari, blue crabs, shrimp, briny oysters and more, would become the new palette for their feasts.
In honor of the season, we’ve created a Texas-Style Feast of the Seven Fishes menu and paired each course with a Texas wine. Texas wine growers and winemakers have now embraced our hot sunny clime (and perhaps their inner Italian), and the wine country is now a mecca of Mediterranean wine production representing grapes grown locally, but originating from Italy, Spain, Sardinia, Portugal and southern France. Our menu follows the concept known the world over wherever locavores and locapours meet: what grows together, goes together, especially on the splendid table of a holiday celebration.
- When buying shucked oysters in their liquor, the flavorful liquid inside their shells, make sure they’re fresh. They should be plump, pearly and translucent and light tan in color—not dull and whitish. The liquor should be clear and viscous—if it’s cloudy and thin the oysters are not fresh.
- When buying peeled crawfish tails, insist on those harvested from Texas or Louisiana. Avoid crawfish tails from China as they have a very musky, to downright unpleasant, taste. And don’t wash the peeled crawfish tails! The orange substance spread on the tails is the delicious fat from the heads of the crawfish—it adds an important flavor element to the dish. The tasty fat is the reason that real crawfish lovers suck the heads of fresh boiled crawfish.
- All Texas wines featured in this article are Texas appellation, meaning that they are made from 75 percent or more Texas-grown grapes. These wines are available at the wineries, many of which offer online sales and shipping. Some are distributed and found in local markets and wine stores, as well as Spec’s Wines, Spirits and Finer Foods across the state.
- Important note: please be advised that wines from Texas wineries that display “For Sale in Texas Only” on their labels are not generally made from locally grown Texas grapes.
FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES MENU
All recipes except the dessert serve 6; dessert serves 10
Tres Palacios Bay Crab Appetizer with Mango and Pineapple Pico de Gallo
Fresh Gulf blue crabmeat, with its sweet, faintly marine taste, is a local treasure. This starter accents the rich, savory crab with tart and mildly spicy nuances. The key to pairing this dish is to pay attention to the tropical fruit and choose a wine with sparkle, moderate alcohol and crisp acidity. We suggest William Chris Vineyards Mary Ruth, an orange muscat and chenin blanc blend grown on the Texas High Plains at Lost Draw Vineyards and John Dale Vineyards in Brownfield. The tropical citrus aromas of orange muscat are sweet and intoxicating, but this blend combines sultry citrus notes with the sharp acidity of chenin blanc.
Spicy Boiled Shrimp with Jalapeño Rémoulade
This dish offers an interesting flavor profile built on sweet shrimp meat, the heat of the jalapeño and a creamy sauce. Taking the lead from the red-pink shrimp, we’ve paired it with a red wine: Brennan Vineyards Buffalo Roam. It’s a lighter Rhône-style red blend with juicy fruit, floral and spicy aromas and, most importantly, soft tannins with a hint of dry Comanche County soil. Crispness and medium body help manage the creaminess of the sauce without overpowering the delicate shrimp taste. To satisfy a white wine craving though, the McPherson Cellars Albariño, Castaño Prado Vineyards, also provides an admirable match with bright and assertive pear and citrus character.
Brown-Butter Oysters with Beet and Goat Cheese Salad
This dish is a luscious experience combining the opulence and finesse of mineral-rich oysters with the rich, fatty, nutty qualities of butter and cheese. Pedernales Cellars Viognier Reserve pairs perfectly. It has a clarity of peach fruit and florals that benefits from the light French oak aging, a creamy mouthfeel and toasty-nutty aromas that harmonize with similar characteristics in the dish.
Cumin-Fried Squid on Red-Chili Aioli with Pico de Gallo
This calamari, with the citrusy-cum-earthy flavor of cumin combined with the zing from the sauce, is not the standard fare. The wine pairing follows the medium intensity of the dish that goes with either red or white wines. The Duchman Family Winery Dolcetto provides medium body, red fruit, dry earth and soft, silky texture. In a different way, the McPherson Cellars Roussanne hits the rich, creamy sauce broadside with bright and refreshing lemony notes and a minerality cloaked below.
Oyster Pan Roast
This is one of our favorite ways to prepare oysters in those chilly months with an “r” when they’re at their salty best. It’s hearty enough to serve as a main dish—perhaps with an added salad—and oh so satisfying to oyster lovers. After the oysters have been eaten, the slice of toasted French bread is used to sop up the rich sauce remaining in the dish, and is almost as good as the oysters themselves! The wine pairing matches the mild intensity of the oysters while wielding natural acidity that cuts through the fat and exposes still more of the oyster flavor. Brennan Vineyards 2012 Lily—a white Rhône-style blend of roussanne, viognier and grenache blanc that features grapes from both Texas High Plains Bingham Family Vineyards and Reddy Vineyards—brings herbal and floral notes that float over the dish and add unique complexity to the presentation.
Texans have developed a love for mudbugs—a favorite nickname for crawfish. Many rice farmers in the eastern coastal regions of Texas flood their fields after harvest and turn the land into crawfish ponds as an adjunct income. This easy recipe features the humble crawfish as the flavor base for a delicious dish with multidimensional flavors. Enhanced by the crawfish “fat,” mushrooms, thyme and rich sauce, it’s the spiciest in our feast, and frankly, this piquant sauce needs a quencher for a perfect match in the form of Messina Hof Winery Riesling (Father and Son Cuvee) with its wondrous residual sugar, crisp acidity and low alcohol. Honeyed lemony floral notes match the flavor intensity and body of the sauce while still allowing the delicate crawfish flavors to emerge.
Pan-Seared Grouper in Tomato Broth with Crisp Garlic, Shrimp and Oven-Roasted Brussels Sprouts
This dish is pure Texas terroir featuring delicious Gulf Coast grouper, an often-underutilized fish, in a broth of Texas tomatoes flavored with Texas sangiovese. It makes a dramatic center-stage entrée in our Texas feast! In the spirit of the traditional baccalà (salted cod in a sauce of tomato, basil and garlic) found on most Feast of the Seven Fishes tables, this dish offers a full-flavored fish in an opulent tomato sauce with a garlic-shrimp topping and the bitter edge of Brussels sprouts, and boldly says I deserve a substantial red wine, please! Perissos Vineyard and Winery Aglianico, grown in the Central Texas granitic soil of the estate vineyard near Burnet, provides flavor intensity, lush dark-fruit flavor and a tannic “grip” that marries nicely with the bitterness of the sprouts. If your preparation forgoes this vegetable in lieu of a less-assertive one, Llano Estacado Winery Montepulciano (a limited bottling) offers a luscious grapey experience, speaks from its roots in the rich, red High Plains soil of Reddy Vineyards and exudes juicy red plum and soft, smooth tannins.
Every feast must end, but why not go out with a bit of panache and pistach in a tiramisu layered with lavish strokes of coffee, amaretto and chocolate. This sensual version was created by Jordan Muraglia, chef and co-owner—along with his partner Richard Boprae—for their Fredericksburg bistro, Vaudeville. We’ve chosen a classic pairing with Messina Hof Winery Papa Paulo Port. This port-style wine has origins in the rare Lenoir grapes grown just inland from the Texas Gulf Coast near Bryan-College Station. However, it’s not fortified with brandy. Instead, it gains its 18 percent alcohol content through special yeast fermentation, thereby offering a soft-sweet experience adding black cherry and mocha to the mix.