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Grana Padano

What we don’t know about Panettone and what no one will ever say

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In an exclusive interview, Stanislao Porzio, food commentator and through-and-through panettone expert, who has written many articles and the most complete book on the topic, talks about history, legend, secrets and curiosities of Panettone, a veritable icon of the Italian Pasticceria.

Stanilslao Porzio, a Milan based writer and gastronomy researcher, is a man with a great passion: panettone.

He has always understood however, that the best way to promote this unique icon of the Italian pasticceria, a great symbol of the city of Milan, is to put aside legends and folklore and stick to history and facts. For this reason he has written a book (in Italian) on Panettone, the king of the Italian Christmas dinner but also one of the most counterfeited Italian desserts around the world. Stanislao Porzio also promotes Re Panettone, an annual fair where some of the best Italian pastry chefs, go to prepare, on the spot, the most exquisite Panettone. We have asked him 10 questions on this object of his passion.

Q. The legend aside, what is the most believable origin of Panettone?

A. Panettone, as we know it today, is the result of the evolution of the breads enriched with valuable ingredients; such breads were prepared for religious feasts, a tradition present in all the cultures stemming from Christianity. In fact in Milan, this is documented by a manuscript conserved in this city’s Ambrosian Library. It goes back to the 1470s and was authored by Giorgio Valagussa, the preceptor of the House of Sforza. In the text, a dialogue between the master and his pupils is narrated about the Ceremony of the Log that had been celebrated by family of the Duke since time immemorial. On the night of 24th December, a huge log was placed in the fireplace. This log was supposed to burn until Epiphany. The pater familias, after having sprinkled it with wine and set it ablaze, cut from each of “three great loaves of wheat bread,” a symbol of the Trinity, a “particle” (Valagussa uses precisely this eucharistic term), which was to be set aside until the following year. Of course, all the remaining slices were distributed among those present.

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It should be of no surprise that these great loaves contained nothing other than wheat; in those times it was a highly valued ingredient; usually a mixture of far less noble cereals was used for bread, to the extent that the majority of the bakers had permission to bake bread with wheat alone only at Christmas time.
As time went by, this Christmas wheat bread was enriched and, in Cherubini’s Milanese-Italian dictionary of 1839 under the entry Panatton o Panatton de Natal, we find; “A kind of bread garnished with butter, eggs, sugar and raisins or sultanas.” The candied fruit was still missing, but more than anything else, the yeast is not mentioned. Indeed, there is an illustration dated post-1848 by Fiquelmont, an Austrian official, which portrays, according to its caption, “… two panatoni below the arm.” What is odd is that they are as flat as two focacce. As far as I know, the first recipe that clearly speaks of yeast, that is of the yeast mother, of course, is Pasta per far panatoni, dough for making panattone, handed down by Gian Felice Luraschi in his Nuovo cuoco milanese economico, New Economic Milanese Cook, from 1853.

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Q. Produced on an industrial or in the artisan way (pasticceria)? Which Panettone is really the authentic one?

A.The first industrial panettone was produced in the establishment of Motta in viale Corsica. The great Angelo, since the laboratories that it had between piazza Missori, via Unione and via Falcone were already bursting, in 1930 already had its sights a large building, then in the outskirts of Milan. In 1935 the magazine L'illustrazione italiana already reported the existence in the company of an oven with a conveyer belt, thirty metres long, made specifically for panettone.
In reality, Angelo Motta was born a pasticceria artisan. Basically, in the establishment of viale Corsica, he had done nothing other than transfer the same standardized and mechanized artisan procedures to a much larger scale. The yeast mother remained the same, and the same yeast mother remains in the company’s industrial production today.
In 2009, industrialised producers have become more and more sophisticated. In comparison with the average artisan, they have many advantages; they have more space, machinery and R&D laboratories. Imagine now that it appears that resources of Bauli and Motta are about to merge. The artisan can get revenge only if he has the experience, the self-abandon, the desire to excel and a pinch of naiveté. It would help to suffer from insomnia too.

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Q. Is the authentic recipe that of the Denomination of the City of Milan (DeCo)? Tall or Flat?

A. The DeCo recipe is basically that of Anna Gosetti della Salda’s monument to gastronomy, Le ricette regionali italiane (The Italian Regional Recipes), Milan, Solares, 1967. But there are many others; you only have to page through Il panettone of yours truly.
Tall or flat? We had left the panettone really flat until the middle of the nineteenth century. Then it was levitated a lot, but only to become a hemisphere, because it was baked without a mould. The real difference was imported by Angelo Motta in the ‘20s, or according to Luigi Mora in his Il panettone alla milanese e come si fabbrica (the Panettone alla Milanese and How it is Made), Varallo Sesia, 1955, by a certain Dragoni with a pasticceria in via Torino at the beginning of the 1900s. They posed themselves the following question; how can the panettone be made into a desert richer in butter and eggs while wanting it to levitate decently? It was noted that the more it was loaded with grease, the less brilliant the levitation proves to be. The paper band or pirottino was the answer. Impeding the dough from spreading itself out, the desert rose.
So back to the question of tall or flat, I would say that these days it is a question of fashion. The panettone was born flat, then industry, starting with Motta, turned it into a champagne cork. Then, many pasticcieri as well as some industries turned to more limited height although still held by a paper band. The “traditional”? I repeat, it’s a question of fashion.

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Q. And a desert that definitely cannot be made at home?

A. Family cookbooks became popular in the twentieth century, whereas in previous centuries these books were directed exclusively to professional cooks. Well then, not only Gosetti della Salda but also the Talismano della Felicità (Talisman of Happiness) by Ada Boni, released for the first time in the ‘20s, has a recipe for panettone, while Artusi, in his Scienza in cucina (Science in Cuisine) cites the much simpler Panettone di Marietta, Marietta being his Florentine housekeeper. Although after these there are at least ten recipes following, the point is that the preparation of a panettone is so long and complex, that to execute it at home is more an undertaking of extreme sport for telling your grandchildren that an objective within the reach of even a capable home cook.

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Q. Is Panettone for the winter alone? Would you eat it in summer time?

A. Until a century ago, it was eaten all year round, as we find in letters of illustrious men and women and bills of pasticcieri; other than registering a jump of sales around Christmas.
Personally, I also eat it in the summer. It has to a certain extent become popular since Davide Paolini, the gastronaut, launched the Panettone Fair in August in Milan, Marittima, of course.

Q. At which meal should it be eaten?

A. Breakfast, lunch, tea, supper. In wintertime it would be a good idea to leave it bit on a radiator to intensify the aromas.

Q. At the end of a meal, do you eat it “liscio” or do you have it accompanied with cream? And while we are on the point, which is the correct way?

A. It depends. Mascarpone creams accompany it well, as do limoncello and hazelnut creams; see Alfonso Pepe and Sal De Riso’s versions of Campania’s pasticceria. What is certain is that what is great about panettone is in the dough; if that isn’t great, then add some impalpable ganache or other, so that the panettone stays very bad.

Q. What do you drink with a panettone?

A. At breakfast and in the afternoon; milk, coffee, cappuccino. At teatime, I don’t know. After lunch and after dinner; sparkling moscato, or even better, fermo (still). Even raisin wines fit in well.

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Q. Outside Italy, have you run into, directly or not, absurd imitations?

A. I have eaten an industrial one in France that was nothing special. I brought one from Brazil and it was rather interesting, although industrial and a hair over spiced. The Bauducco brand; a family of Piedmontese emmigrated to Brazil in the ‘50s. Now they are the kings of Christmas desert in South America, where it has become very popular, thanks also to Motta Perù (maybe it will overtake the one alla Bauli…).


Q. What don’t we know about panettone and what no one will ever say?

A. The most famous legends about panettone – Pan de Toni (Toni’s Bread), Ughetto degli Atellani, Suor Ughetta (Sister Raisin) – were all invented intentionally in the second half of the nineteenth century. They show us nothing about the true origins of the desert but a lot about the society that told them. And because it was the period in which Milan was establishing itself as a business centre, they tell stories of professional, business fortunes; the one about Toni, the brilliant cook’s helper of the Duke’s kitchen who saved Ludovico il Moro’s Christmas party, the one about the entrepreneurial Ughetto, who leaves the nobility to become a baker and to become rich, or then, the one about Suor Ughetta, who changes the poor leftovers of the convent’s pantry into the ingredients of a desert that the nuns then sell by the thousands, thus placing on steady foot their flimsy economy.