The wonderful Mary Beard is always worth reading; her recent TLS column “Man ist was man isst?” is about “the great horsemeat scandal,” but in the course of it she mentions parenthetically “a friend who recently reminded me that Elizabeth David referred to a celebratory dish of roast cat in Sardinia.” This caught my eye, as it did that of some of the commenters—”Gigi Santow said… Please, please, could someone provide corroborating chapter and verse for Elizabeth David’s cat feast in Sardinia?”—and Mary Beard provided the relevant quote: “An Italian friend of mine once told me that in Sardinia a peasant woman had said to her, ‘Christmas without a roast cat wouldn’t be Christmas’ (Elizabeth David’s Christmas, 2003: 133, under ‘Bread Sauce’).” In response, commenter Caroline said “Cat in Italian is ‘gatto’ but this spelling and pronunciation is used for ‘gateau’, cake in French. I believe that the cat for Christmas in Sardinia is a crunchy almond biscuit!” and Michael Bulley followed up:
Well, nearly. It isn’t to do with cats. Elizabeth David should have brought along a translator or her publishers should have used a proper proofreader. Here’s an extract from “The Sardinian Art of Pastry”:
“The most famous perhaps is the gatto. Prepared every year during the festival that honours a town’s local saint, it is basically a nougat made with sugar and almonds, and sometimes orange peel. What makes the gatto special is that it is painstakingly made to resemble in cake form the town church or religious structure in a miniature replica. During the celebrations, the gatto made especially for the occasion is made the centerpiece.”
In Sicily, however, the gatto is a cheese and potato pie.
There is further discussion of Sardinian gattò and the various ways of preparing it, which you can read at the link, but I wanted to provide the public service of reassuring everyone that Sardinians do not, in fact, eat cats for Christmas. (A tip o’ the Languagehat hat to AJP for the very entertaining link.)