At the beginning of November, Italian stores are suddenly flooded with Christmas food. Exactly what Italians eat at Christmas depends on which region they are from, but there are three things that you find pretty much everywhere: torrone (nougat), pandoro (a yellow sponge cake originally from Verona), and panettone.
Panettone the closest you can get to a national Italian Christmas food. And when you think that the concept of an Italian state is a relatively new one (Italy celebrated 150 years as a country in 2011) it’s no surprise that panettone is a relative newcomer too.
The cake was popularized in the 1920s by two rival Milanese baking companies: Motta and Alemagna. Although based on a traditional recipe Motta created an industrial version of the panettone which was taller and lighter than the original. Alemagna produced their own version and together the two marketed the innovation all over the peninsula. In the aftermath of World War II, panettone began to occupy the position it does today. It wouldn’t be Christmas without one.
In the 1950s and 60s, there was a period of nostalgia in Italian cooking, during which a semi-mythical story of an age-old Italian cuisine was invented. As part of this, stories and legends of the panettone’s true origins were rediscovered, embellished, and sometimes invented. These include the one about the poor Milanese apprentice baker, whose girlfriend’s father rejected him as a suitor on the grounds that he was too poor. He promptly invented panettone, became rich and then happily married.
Pan di Toni
Other versions of the tale revolve around someone called Antonio nicknamed Toni. He invents the dish which gets called Pan di Toni (Toni’s bread). In some versions of the tale Toni is an apprentice who saves the day by inventing a last minute Christmas dessert after his master’s one is ruined. In others, he’s a priest who was famous for wearing a peculiarly shaped hat.
A more likely etymology
Whichever you believe, the derivation of panettone seems to come from the slightly archaic word panetto which means ‘bread roll’. Adding –one on the end in Italian adds the meaning of ‘big’. So, a big bread roll.
Today you can buy extremely cheap pannetoni, often from Motta or Alemagna (who are now owned by the firm Bauli) or really expensive, artisanal ones. Italians often give them as Christmas gifts to family and friends—particularly when paying them a pre-Christmas visit—or receive them from their employers. You usually never buy one for yourself as you will get given several during the period. Recently, luxury versions have appeared so you can make a bella figura when giving them away.
The million dollar question
No discussion of panettone would be complete without addressing the ‘age-old’ question posed by all Italians. «Il panettone, con o senza canditi?» (‘Do you prefer your panettone with or without candied peel?’) Candied peel in Italy is a bit like Marmite in the UK. You love it or hate it. I’ve seen people literally picking the peel out of their panettone. A recent online survey produced a clear majority for those who prefer it without peel. However, a sizeable group said they didn’t care.