Italy weddings: The ultimate gastric challenge

A bride and groom in Naples in 2011

An Italian wedding is quite a different thing from a British wedding, and traditions also vary between northern and southern Italy. But wherever you are in Italy, a wedding is an excuse for an enormous feast.

My Italian friend Valeria is getting married. So is my school friend, Fiona.

Both are having civil ceremonies - Valeria at the Rocca Sforzesca, a Renaissance castle once used as a prison and Fiona at St. Albans Register Office, the gatehouse of a Victorian prison.

Marriage-prison jokes aside, I am thoroughly looking forward to both events.

Last Friday I had dinner with Valeria and two other girlfriends - Paola, from Bologna, and Mariangela, from Sicily.

The wedding was, inevitably, the main topic, particularly plans for the hen night, in Italian fabulously called an addio al nubilato - a farewell to nubility.

The conversation was bursting with pre-nuptial excitement until Valeria happened to mention that some guests were only invited to the ceremony, not to the dinner. Mariangela was horrified.

"You can't invite people and not give them a meal in return!"

"Why not?" retorted Valeria. "Sending an invitation's a courtesy to tell people you're getting married, but I don't want my boss at my reception!"

Mariangela was not convinced.

"In Sicily, receiving an invitation means you're obliged to buy a gift, and that means you expect a free meal."

I defused the tension by showing them the poem I will be reading at Fiona's wedding - a gentle marital comedy in rhyme by Pam Ayres. They were amused by the verse and astonished by the idea of readings during the ceremony, particularly comic ones.

But Mariangela's disgust at the notion of unfed wedding guests got me thinking. While the focus at British receptions is on the speeches, the Italian reception is, unsurprisingly, all about the food.

And on this one occasion, quantity is perhaps even more important than quality. Down south, wedding banquets can go on for an entire day, but here up north things are not much better.

In my experience, Italian weddings are the ultimate gastric challenge. With an array of mouth-watering antipasti served buffet-style on arrival, I am usually full before I have even reached the table.

The sit-down meal then begins with at least three primi piatti - usually elaborate pastas and rich risottos. And that is before the main course.

Italian weddings are the only time I actually find myself getting bored with eating, looking over at the cake and groaning,"Aren't we there yet?"

Food even plays a role in the ceremony itself, because Italians throw rice, not confetti, over the newlyweds. It is apparently symbolic of prosperity, fertility and happiness.

Although pelting the couple with rice is immense fun, it is a real pest to clean up, especially from the cracks between cobblestones, so some places have chosen to ban it.

One popular venue in Romeo and Juliet's hometown of Verona, is the romantic - if a touch sinister - Juliet's Tomb. I have been to two weddings there and the no-rice rule was strictly enforced.

As for the multi-coloured bits of paper we call confetti, they are known as coriandoli here.

You will not see them at weddings but you will find children in fancy dress throwing them during February's Carnival celebrations.

Image caption Some Italian shops specialise in bomboniera - packages for sugared almonds

In fact, Italians would never throw confetti over the newlyweds because in this country you do not throw confetti - you eat it.

Confetti is the word for sugared almonds, traditionally given to guests by the bride and groom as a thank you gift and keepsake.

Our word confectionery comes from the same root. Confetti are generally presented in a little lace and ribbon-adorned package called a bomboniera. I am assuming Valeria's boss will at least get one of those.

Confetti are not just for weddings though - you can get them in different colours to celebrate baptisms, university degrees, anniversaries and First Communion.

There are entire shops selling only confetti and bomboniera-related decorations and trinkets. Curious to know more, I ventured into one last week.

All frilly lace, shiny ornaments and, wall-to-wall sugared almonds, it was like a combination of Aladdin's cave, the house in Hansel and Gretel, and an Ann Summers shop.

I wanted to know why there are always five confetti in a bomboniera.

"It's tradition!" smiled the shopkeeper. "Each one is a symbolic wish for the newlyweds - health, happiness, fertility, long life and wealth."

I decided it might be auspicious to get one for Fiona. So if you are at Gatwick next Friday and you see someone carrying a froufrou little bundle and practising her Pam Ayres accent that will be me.

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