In Italy, the rules for making the delicacy, panettone, are strict: in order to be labeled as such, a native panettone must be composed of no less than 20 percent candied fruit, 16 percent butter, and eggs that are at least four percent yolk. Attempts by the Italian agriculture ministry to have these standards applied abroad have not panned out, and the reality is that panettone is a dessert with many homes.
Panettone has actually been a worldly product from the very beginning. From the Middle Ages onward, the pastry was appropriate for a feast day precisely because it involved ingredients that were hard to come by. In the 15th century—a period in which bread flour usually involved cheaper grains like spelt and rye—the first panettone was made entirely from wheat flour, and thus more likely to impress the in-laws. And given the climate of northern Italy, additions like candied citron or orange peel would have had to come from hundreds of miles away, beyond, perhaps, even the borders of modern-day Italy.
“Panettone was not born as a homemade cake, nor has it ever been,” says Stanislao Porzio, a food scholar and author of a 2007 book on the subject. “It was never important that the place of provenance of the ingredients be near the place of preparation.
In other words, nothing is inherently inauthentic about a panettone made in the Western hemisphere. In the 1930s, when Angelo Motta was installing a 100-foot conveyor belt in his bakery on Milan’s Viale Corsica to create what Porzio calls the world’s first “industrial panettone,” an entrepreneur named Antonio D’Onofrio had already established a market for the pastry in Lima, Peru, where thousands of immigrants from Piedmont and Lombardy had arrived since the mid-1800s. Today, the brands of Motta and D’Onofrio (now owned by Nestle) compete in the Peruvian marketplace, where slices of panettone—inflected with bits of dried papaya—is the sweet of choice for both Christmas and Independence Day, celebrated in July. Italy may dominate in global panettone consumption, at a rate of 75 million cakes purchased in 2016, but Peruvian fans are no less sincere. They consumed 42 million panettoni in the same year, sometimes enjoying variations like cocatón, in which about five percent of the flour is made from coca leaves, or by incorporating a fruity edible fungus native to the pine forests around Lambayeque.
In sales, Italian confectioners have been outpaced for a long time by companies like Bauducco, another multi-generational enterprise, founded in the 1950s by an Italian immigrant to Brazil. The company is probably the biggest panettone producer on earth, making more than 200,000 tons each year for more than 50 countries and operating six industrial bakeries, including one in the United States.
“It’s a tradition that goes back generations,” says Ricardo Bastos, a Brazilian grocer in the Astoria section of Queens, New York. Bastos sells Bauducco’s panettone year-round at his store, Rio Supermarket.
Stanislao, the historian, admits to having tasted the Bauducco brand himself, and gave it a tactful review. (“It had a different, romantic character.”) He remains passionate about preserving the traditions of panettone-making in his home country of Italy and is the sponsor of a petition on Change.org to have the recipe recognized as a valuable cultural artifact by Unesco. In 2008, he launched Re Panettone (“Panettone King”), an annual competition in Milan aimed at promoting panettone variations made by artisanal bakers and pastry-makers. While far-off ingredients like saffron or tonka bean are welcome, entrants eschew the use of preservatives—even those somehow permitted by the Italian Pastry and Pasta Association—and are rewarded for their attention to detail and respect for the original formula.
A more historical perspective . . . The pastry was first mentioned in a manuscript from the 1470s, written by a preceptor in Milan’s House of Sforza. A legend tells of a story when Ludovico il Moro was the Duke of Milan. It begins one evening when the Duke's cook was asked to prepare a delicious banquet for the duke and a number of nobles. The cook successfully prepared the feast, however, he forgot about the dessert in the oven, which had burnt by the time he remembered it. The cook was in despair but thankfully the little kitchen boy, Toni, suggested using the sweet cake he had made for himself in the morning using flour, butter, eggs, lime zest, and raisins. The cook was afraid he had no other solutions, so agreed to offer the cake to the guests. They both nervously stood behind the door to see the reactions of the duke's friends.
To the cook's relief, everybody loved the cake. The duke enjoyed it so much that he asked for its name. The cook responded "L'è 'l pan de Toni", meaning 'the bread of Toni'. The name has since evolved to Panettone.
Hoping you get to enjoy a slice of my bread, L'è 'l pan de Toni, or panettone, this Christmas season . . . Buon Natale!
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.