Boiling Point: Family banquet is center of traditional Spanish Christmas Eve

Jim Hillibish

A traditional Spanish Christmas Eve centers on one thing — food. Nothing else is allowed to get in the way, including sleep.

They call it La Noche Buena, the Good Night. The goodness just keeps coming.

This is a mammoth family banquet, a true groaner. It is timed to end just before midnight, when everybody goes to Mass. It often requires at least two hours at the table.

Many Spanish do not exchange gifts on Christmas. They wait for Epiphany on Jan. 6, the celebration of the Magi bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. This is the historical root of Christmas gift giving.

La Noche Buena consists of four courses. No one dish is especially hard to make, but taken together and timed right, they are a major work. Madre is in the kitchen all day.

Everybody assembles around the table graced with piles of Clementine oranges from Spain. Clemmies are incredibly sweet and almost peel themselves. They are a celebration.

The wine throughout is cava, a sparkling Spanish vintage consumed in glass tumblers. Cava means it was aged in caves near Barcelona.

First arrives the aperitivo curso, the tapas. These are salty appetizers passed on little plates. Anything goes, and the variety is staggering. Sure to appear is chorizo, the paprika-spiced sausage of Spain. You’ll find it with melted, smoked cheeses on little squares of bread. Other favorites include smoked oysters, herring in wine sauce and mussels in tomato sauce and garlic.

The aperitivo includes shrimp boiled in shell until they just turn pink, then refrigerated for three hours. They arrive on ice with spicy dipping salsa on the side.

Primer plato comes next, the first-course of light dishes that prime the palate for things to come. Most often this is a seafood creamed sopa (soup) and perhaps an ensalada (salad) of endive stuffed with creamed cheese in a vinaigrette with grape tomatoes.

Plato principal, main course, is the big filler. This is hearty roasted meats, often cordero (lamb) with garlic and fresh rosemary. Home-fried potatoes, the patatas fritas, are a must. They are unpeeled, thin slices slowly fried in butter to a perfect golden.

Ensalada verde, a salad of olives, feta cheese and fresh greens dressed in vinegar and fine olive oil, balances the meat and potatoes and finishes the course.

The postre grande then arrives — dessert. These are trays of obleas de azúcar (sugar wafers), turron (almond candy), polvorones (almond cookies) and little squares of sugared mantecado (crumb cake). Not to be missed: The flan is a creamy baked custard.

Finally come the Christmas toasts with glasses of anise liqueur or Spanish Cardenal Mendoza brandy plus tiny cups of espresso.

Then the family rushes to midnight Mass. Digesting a meal that enormous late at night is a challenge. Each must watch those on either side and launch a nudge when they drift off.

Jim Hillibish writes for The Repository in Canton, Ohio. Contact him at jim.hillibish@cantonrep.com.