Being a Christian holiday, most of traditions and customs connected with Christmas are faith-related. However, everywhere in the world, therefore in Split too, it's also a family holiday, and there is no place where family can get together more pleasant and nicer than around the table. After all, that's main reason why every nation has particular holidays-related food. In Split, we have our favourites, too.
We can begin right from the top, with a king; codfish. At the first glance, it's more than obvious choice for dining on Christmas eve; faith dictates fasting, and Split lies by the sea, so what else one would eat if not fish? But what if it's a fish usually living thousands of kilometres away? What that fish is doing here, not only in Croatia but all over Mediterranean, from Greece to Portugal? And why we don't eat some of "our" fish, but that one imported from cold north?
Of all explanations I saw, the most convincing sounds the one I read in some book about European food. Apparently, cod was introduced to Mediterranean by Venetian nobleman and merchant Pietro Querini in the first half of 15th century. As this story says, in 1431 he sailed with three ships from Crete to Belgium with precious cargo of wine and spices. When caught in a storm, all three ships sank, and most of the crew either drowned or died of starvation on lifeboats. Small group of survivors finally reached an island in Lofoten, saved by local fishermen. Spending there more than three months, Italian sailors learned, among other things, how to prepare and eat stock fish, cut in small pieces and fried on butter. A year later they returned home loaded with cargo of stock fish, and Querini became the first importer of Nordic cod dried on sun and wind. By the end of the century trade moved on, but it took almost hundred years before it was connected with Christmas. It was indirect result of Council at Trent, when church decided to turn fasting into an important tool against greed and body pleasures. As usual, the rich didn't want to get rid of their habits. Legend says that they asked their chefs to figure out how to follow strict religious rules, and enjoy food in the same time. Suddenly, cod was rediscovered, and started spreading fast.
Eventually it reached Dalmatia, and became unavoidable part of Christmas eve f(e)asting. Besides cod, other seafood treats are also welcome, from black risotto to different salads or brodettos, including those made of local version of stock fish, even dried octopus. In "normal" times, a smell of cod (although not always pleasant) would spread around the city, because it's usual order in any restaurants. This year we will return to home cooking, or delivery.
At the end of the evening, everyone in Split will enjoy fritule, another must-have dish on Christmas Eve. Those dough balls with raisins, simple at the first sight, are one of foundations of gastronomy dimension of Christmas. Today you can buy them, but nothing compares with eating them fresh, soft and warm on the Christmas Eve. Basic recipe is always the same, but pretty much every family has it's own more detailed recipe, transferred through generations. And as usual, every Dalmatian woman or man who likes cooking will tell you that she or he is making the best one. Don't believe them, because those my grandmother used to make are above all.
Besides fritule, Dalmatian - meaning also Split - families has other sweet treats, for example kroštule, another simple delicacy of fried dough. There is also a mandulat, elsewhere known as turrón, a sweet with almond, another part of Italian or more precise Venetian heritage in Dalmatia. And of course, with a small glass of fine Dalmatian desert wine.
Christmas lunch is always rich, it's not specific for Split. As everywhere, we usually eat roasted meat after soup, ranging from turkey to veal to pork, and sarme (stuffed cabbage) is also often. Dalmatian contribution to the list of holiday specialties is pašticada, slowly cooked sweet and sour beef stew, with gnocchi. And as always, sweets at the end.