It just isn’t Christmas in Italy without panettone. The average Italian family consumes 2.5 loaves over the festive period, and if you’ve ever tasted it, it’s easy to understand why this domed-shaped, fluffy dessert is to Italy what stollen is to Germany.
Since its creation in Milan over 500 years ago, panettone has been a popular gift to share with friends or neighbours around the holiday season. This tradition dates back to when Milanese bakeries gifted it to their customers in December, at a time when wheat was a rare and precious ingredient.
A romantic legend tells the story of a nobleman called Ughetto Atellani, who falls in love with Adalgisa, the beautiful daughter of a poor baker named Toni. Because the nobleman’s family would not accept him marrying a girl of a lower status, the pair were forced to meet in secret. Desperate to marry her, the knight eventually hatched a plan to persuade his family to support the union. Disguised as a peasant, he got hired to work in Toni’s bakery, where he smuggled in expensive ingredients like butter, eggs, and lemon peel. Working day and night, he perfected the first incarnation of the cake that would be sold to Toni’s customers. It was named ‘panettone’, meaning literally ‘bread of Toni’, and the resulting success of the bakery impressed the nobleman’s family enough to approve of the marriage. Rumour has it that even Leonardo Da Vinci attended the nuptials!
This fluffy, buttery, fruitcake – which can take 70 or more hours to make – remained exclusive to Milan until the end of the 19th century, when Angelo Motta kick-started its mass popularity. The young entrepreneur industrialized the production of panettone and designed the dome shape we are familiar with today. Since then, panettone has done far more than expand nationally outside of Milan. Last year, Italy produced more than 7,100 tons of panettone – 10% of which was sold internationally to over 75 countries.
Over the centuries, the recipe has undergone a number of transformations, but its place at the Italian Christmas dinner table has never wavered. At the turn of the 20th Century, large-scale Italian immigration to the US introduced the new world to Italian cuisine, sending pizza and pasta to enormous levels of global popularity. With panettone lining more supermarket shelves every year, and with the launch of France’s first panettone championship and New York’s first panettone festival – it begs the question, is panettone next?