From pervasive regift to artisanal creation

Panettone starts getting some respect

2017/11/28 - Written by Sal Difalco
Sandro Carpené, owner of Arte&Farina, photo by Daniele Tomelleri
Sandro Carpené, owner of Arte&Farina, photo by Daniele Tomelleri
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Panettone, that moist, sweet, ubiquitous and often derided staple of the Christmas holidays, has been called “the Italian version of fruitcake.

Legendary talk show host Johnny Carson once joked that the worst Christmas gift is a fruitcake. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world,” he quipped, “and people keep sending it to each other.” More than a few people, in Italy and abroad, have been guilty of regifting a panettone during the holidays; and anecdotal evidence exists of individual panettone circulating among families and friends for years, if not decades. But judging from the 100 million plus panettone sold worldwide each year, people aren’t regifting as often as rumoured. Clearly, more people are consuming it than ever. So is this somewhat beleaguered Italian Christmas constant finally getting respect?

Reluctantly admitting to “picking out the dried fruit when I was a kid,” Marina Bertozzi, product developer for A. Bertozzi Importing in Toronto and daughter of its founder, Adriano, takes exception to any panettone denigrations. Her family, originally from Parma, has been importing panettone since 1952. Bertozzi points out that, joking aside, the genuine affection Italians have for panettone (which has been around in some form for centuries) runs deep and counterbalances any negative connotations. “It’s part of our culture,” Bertozzi says, “something we’ve brought over to Canada and shared with Canadians.”

Unlike its denser and gooier cousin the fruitcake, and despite an inescapable kitschiness (the glare of panettone boxes stacked into pyramids comes to mind) the iconic confection is currently enjoying a revivification and unprecedented popularity, going both mainstream and global. And Canada has not been immune to panettone’s sweet and airy charms. Though it remains a cherished holiday fixture within Italian-Canadian households, it has also crept into the larger Canadian gustatory landscape and taken on local dimensions of its own.  

Sandro Carpené, co-owner with Mirko D’Agata of Arte & Farina, a bakery in Montreal specializing in artisanal panettone, takes his panettone seriously. Carpené, who emigrated from Bassano del Grappa in Veneto six years ago, and learned his craft under esteemed Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, bakes his delectable creations on-site at Arte & Farina. 

Sandro Carpené, co-owner with Mirko D’Agata of Arte & Farina, a bakery in Montreal specializing in artisanal panettone

“There are strict requirements for traditional artisanal panettone,” he explains. “Rules codified in Milan include a 30-day shelf life, specific dimensions, quantity of fruit and butter, and flour imported from Italy called Manitoba that’s favoured in Italy for its high gluten content, insuring a light product. This grain only grows in cold climates. Really, the best flour is here, in Canada. So I don’t import it.” 

Photography Daniele Tomelleri

Although alternative etymologies exist – invoking references to poor bakers named Toni, Dukes of Milan and munificent nuns – the word panettone comes from the Italian word panetto, meaning a small loaf cake. Despite its uncomplicated recipe – water, flour, yeast, butter, egg yolks, raisins, candied fruit and citrus rind – panettone has a tangled, picturesque history likely reaching back to the honeyed cakes of the Roman Empire. But the current panettone incarnation owes more to medieval Milan and Verona (birthplace of pandoro), as well as the evolution of enriched breads prepared for Christian religious feasts.

Photography Daniele Tomelleri

The earliest recorded association of panettone with Christmas appears in the 18thcentury writings of Pietro Verri, who called it Pane di Tono (luxury cake). 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 first reference to yeast (which gives panettone its characteristic airiness) dates to 1853, in Giovanni Felice Luraschi’s Il nuovo cuoco Milanese economico, while candied fruit is first cited in Giovanni Vialardi’s Trattato di cucina, pasticceria moderna (1854). In the early 20th century Angelo Motta of Milan, whose name and products endure, rolled out the first industrial panettone.

While assembly line panettone has predominated the market ever since, current demand for artisanal panettone, with wild deviations from the norm, has risen sharply. “And it’s not just for the Italian community,” Marina Bertozzi says, “and not just for the holidays.” She notes an increasing appetite for more decadent (and pricier) panettone varieties. “Recently,” she says, “we relaunched a private Milanese brand we introduced back in 1992, made with Madagascar vanilla and Siwa dates – all slow-food friendly – and hand-wrapped in Italian crepe paper.” 

“It’s still essentially a Christmas cake,” Sandro Carpené says, “but more and more it’s used for every conceivable festivity and occasion. We make it all year long, and sell artisanal and commercial brands throughout the year.” He concedes that panettone, of course, remains popular with Italians. “But a lot of other people are buying it,” he adds. “It’s a big seller with the Québécois.”Perhaps the refined handiwork and seductiveness of this new wave of panettone will forever turn the tide against serial regifting and fruitcake jokes.

Photo by Daniele Tomelleri 

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