CHIAVARI, Italy – I’m no expert but I think it would be safe to say that panettone is the most famous Christmas cake in Italy. No matter the region, north or south, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a panettone on the table. But there are other Italian Christmas cakes too. Good ones. Delicious ones. And Siena’s classic Christmas cake, the dense, dark and spicy panforte, would certainly be at the top of the delicious list.
|Christmas Morning, Siena, Italy|
The story really begins somewhere between the years 1096 and 1270, which is when the Crusaders, after having invaded the Middle East, saw cinnamon, coriander, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper for the first time. They brought the spices back to Italy and since the Crusades were religious wars, it is not surprising that the first mention of panforte was found in a document dated 1205 in the Convent of Montecelso, on the outskirts of Siena.
Today panforte is made with bits of candied oranges and citron (a green citrus fruit that looks like a lemon), almonds and honey and a mix of spices including: cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, star anise and black pepper. If you want to make your own, you can buy the spice mix in specialty shops during the holidays under the name Droga Panforte, but you should know that it’s not called panforte – strong bread – for no reason. It’s because the dough is very stiff and difficult to work with. Proceed at your own risk.
In spite of the commercialized ideas of what we think we can’t live without these days, all those gifts we’ll soon find under the Christmas tree will soon be forgotten, but the memory of the holiday sweets will stay with us forever. You will find local Christmas specialties that bring a smile and a nod, and a warm remembrance of Christmases past in every town, big and small, from the mountains of Trentino Alto Adige to sunny Sicily. Here are a few more of them.
There was a time when the richness of the buccellato represented good fortune and prosperity, and it was used to celebrate special family occasions such as baptisms and weddings. Today buccellato is most often seen at Christmas, but unlike its northern neighbors who crank out their Christmas panettone by the thousands, buccellato is still made by hand, one at a time, and for some reason I think that is a whole lot better, don’t you?
And last, but certainly not least, Milan's panettone. Happy holidays!