A word, an idea, or a religious holiday? How Christmas is considered and celebrated depends on the location, feeling, faith and culture. But whatever the circumstances, the spirit of brotherhood and serenity that permeates Christmas in all its nuances, that exciting and joyful glow when we join our families or friends are as universal as music and as old as the comet’s message: peace on earth to men of good will.
At Christmas a simple, fruit-filled sweet bread is enjoyed that originates in far-off times. Created in an Italian city, the panettone became popular throughout Italy, and then abroad. Nowadays, panettone in various shapes and flavours can be found anywhere in the world, but few probably know how it came about and why, and above all its unique secret. If we wish to trace the origins of panettone, there are two ways to do so: the first is incredible and detailed as only legends can be; the second seems more realistic, but ultimately elusive.
If we take the first option, we find ourselves in 15th and 16th century Milan, at the time of Ludovico Sforza, also known as Ludovico il Moro. One of his falconers fell in love with the daughter of Toni, the baker. In order to be near her he became the baker’s assistant and to win the baker’s approval, he invented a new Christmas bread that everyone called in dialect “Pan de Toni”, which then became “panettone”. Toni appears in another version of the story, this time as a kitchen scullion who saved the day when a cook accidentally burnt the cake prepared for the Christmas banquet at Ludovico Moro’s residence. Toni had prepared some bread for himself with sweet left-overs and this was offered instead to the banqueters, “Pan de Toni”, again. A third legend goes that the sweet was created even earlier, in the 13th century in a convent at Milan’s gates, by a certain cook, Ughetta, who prepared some bread filled with raisins and citron for the sisters as a special Christmas treat. The bread was liked so much that news about it spread fast, and the Milanese rushed to buy it at the convent, thereby helping out the sisters in their financial position. In this last case there is no Toni to attribute the sweet’s name, but the spirit of this legend remains the same, namely that it is always poor people who have created a simple product with so much generosity, a sweet that is eaten all year round, but becomes the main traditional feature at Christmas.
The other, elusive and less imaginative account finds its roots in the mists of time, linked to a now-forgotten pagan yuletide ceremony that was practised all over Europe and long practised in Milan. When the family gathered around the fireplace, the head of the family would place a large oak log on a bed of juniper and light it. He would then pour a little wine on the burning log, drink some himself and then pass it round. Next he would throw a coin on the fire and then hand out a coin to each of those present. Finally he would take a large loaf of home-made bread, slice it or break it up into chunks and distribute it, keeping back a little for the next yuletide. This large loaf of simple wheat bread could be the origin of our account, in that as time went by the bread became richer, perhaps already at the time of Ludovico il Moro. This special bread became associated with Christmas, and it is said that in this period the bakers gave it away to their customers. In Milanese dialect it was known as “Pan di scior” (gentleman’s bread) or else “Pan de ton” (luxury bread), panettone.
A bread that has never ceased to evolve, culminating in its final tall, dome-topped, cylindrical form in the early 20th century when Angelo Motta, a Milanese pastry chef, introduced the grease-proof paper case that covers most of the sweet. Today panettone is regulated by official standards. The ingredients are water, flour, honey, eggs, milk, butter, sultanas, candied orange peel or citron, yeast, salt and sugar, malt, vanilla, and natural flavourings. Nothing else is permitted.
To make panettone the yeast is first prepared and then the dough, and here the various manufacturers of panettone vary the quantities and order of ingredients, the number of times the dough is kneaded, and the leavening conditions (time, temperature and moisture). So the dough is kneaded, left to rise, then kneaded again and left to rise once more. Those who are familiar with the bread’s soft, light consistency know how important these various stages are. Once the dough has risen several times it is then divided up and shaped into the cases of grease-proof paper, which will remain on the bread when sold. The bread is again left to rise in the case and then a cross is cut on the top of the dough before it goes into the oven. Once the bread is taken out of the oven, the bread is left to cool turned upside down, so that it does not collapse.
Numerous bakers in Milan have been making panettone for five hundred years. Nowadays, besides industrial products (some are of excellent quality) there are also many bakers who produce their own outstanding panettone. Some bakers are renowned and come from a historic line, while others are more recent. In any case, panettone should be eaten in Milan, just as pizza, which now is famous the whole world over, should be eaten in Naples, where it originated. If Milan is the Naples of panettone, trying to find this simple, but refined sweet elsewhere is not the same thing. For those who live far away, this genuine, delicious bread can be sent.
As with everything else that is fine, in order to enjoy panettone you need peace and quiet (not only at Christmas), and a good glass of wine. Brachetto, a dessert wine, is ideal, being sweet and smooth, which goes perfectly well with the panettone and enhances its flavour. Indeed, if you really want a great experience, you should sit down with your panettone, a bottle of Gatij Brachetto D’Acqui, vintage 2011 from the centuries-old cellars of the Marchese di Barolo and your pipe. To enjoy the whole experience, we recommend a medium Virginia flake, in particular Samuel Gawith’s Best Brown Flake, tobacco manufacturers since 1792.
In the end we tasted four different kinds of panettone from pastry shops in Milan, and each had its own distinct features and flavours, but all four were outstanding in quality:
Corso Genova, 1
20123 Milano - Italy
P.le di Porta Lodovica, 2
20136 Milano - Italy
S. Carlo Pasticceria
Via San Vittore (angolo Carducci), 36
20123 Milano - Italy
Sant Ambroeus Milano
C.so Matteotti, 7
20121 Milano - Italy