To panettone or not to panettone…
Every year my Sicilian grandmother would proudly pull out and slice some panettone sweet bread after a bountiful Christmas lunch. For Nonna the fluffy mushroom-shaped loaf was a fine treat filled with candied orange, citron, lemon zest and raisins.
I hated it, I was too full to enjoy anything and it was like eating sand all dry and crumbly in my mouth.
Christmas in the antipodean summer is never suited to winter delicacies, but this never stopped my Nonna and other mad keen and slightly askew English families in Australia who insisted on dedicating their festivities to the motherland with glazed ham and stuffed turkey in the withering 40°C -100 °F heat of a festive season Down Under.
Through the years my grandmother insisted and I resisted.
In reality I didn’t know what panettone was. Every year I was impressed by the colorful packaging which promised a divine dessert, stupidly and simply believing the image on the box. I would forget about the Christmas bread during the year until it was pulled out again, professed to be the best thing ever and would end up spitting it out into a napkin.
Coffee and panettone
Many years later my Sicilian husband, brother and sister-in-law and three nieces and nephews come to Western Australia for Christmas, packing their panettone in their suitcase, insisting it’s not Christmas without it.
After our barbecue at the beach, in our shorts, wife beaters and flip-flops the Italians insisted on their coffee and panettone.
With the panettone they had brought a coffee percolator and Italian bottled water after we told them the short blacks in Oz are never the same. Determined to experiment and prove me wrong, they fired up a gas flame, just like in Sicily, the coffee was on and panettone sliced. Sitting under the eucalyptus shade we sipped our dirty water and munched on stringy sourdough. Nothing was said in that precise moment but months later my sister-in-law admitted, it must be the air that makes good coffee and the cold which gives you an appetite.
The mystery of the coffee debate in Australia is being solved by high-tech alien technology based coffee machines who recreate the atmospheric qualities of the Italian peninsular and trick the coffee beans into behaving like they do in Italy and tasting mildly like the real stuff.
It’s an Italian thing…
When it comes to the big P. I think it is a strictly northern hemispheric winter thing, so much so that Christmas in Italy has turned my twenty plus year hate into celestial worship. I still fussily pick out the sultanas and candid fruit, but when the December chill comes and I begin to see Panettone and its poorer cousin the Pandora (without the dry fruits) on supermarket shelves and in pastry shops, I cannot resist stocking up.
My gradual acceptance of this Christmas sweet has coincided and become a metaphor for my acceptance of the eccentricities of life here in Sicily. I used to dread the winter and resent having to pass the Yuletide with a constant chill in my bones, after a lifetime of summer time festivities, I would become sulky and book plane tickets to avoid it.
Over the past few years I’ve begun to relish the traditions. The cold means wrapping myself up in snuggly winter coats and I treat myself to a new stylish Italian outfit each year complete with cute boots and fluffy scarves as only Europeans do.
I catch up on my reading, get sloshed on Prosecco, Grappa and dive into the comforting and cascading bounty which is winter food in Italy, all with a hedonistic revelry which would make any Sicilian proud.
I’ve learned to love Panettone.
The only Panettone I tend to smirk at these days is Cinepanettone, an Italian cinematic genre which inflicts corny comic flicks on the Italian public every December. Movies like Christmas in the Caribbean, New York or other innocuously exotic location which are then painfully heaped with slapstick, half-naked women and cliché after cliché, all terribly popular but the cause of a collective intellectual fermentation and eventual indigestion.
A short history
Pandoro and Panettone in Italy is fresher, lighter and evermore fragrant, no one can resist.
I must take off my hat to the long-lost inventor of this timely treat, a certain Toni, a baker in the service of Ludovico il Moro in medieval Lombardy, surrounding the modern city of Milan. Apparently Toni stumbled on this special recipe after accidentally burning the Christmas cake. In a blind panic, to avoid losing his job and this employers wrath he used his personal stash of mother yeast, kneading it several times with flour, eggs, sugar, raisins and candid fruit to create a substitute dessert. Lucky the result was a success, Ludovico il Moro naming it the Pan de Toni (literally Toni’s bread) – or so the story goes …
More likely the panettone has origins in the ancient tradition of eating wheat bread, which dates back to the Middle Ages. Wheat was a symbol of fertility and the sharing of Christmas bread reflects an ancient rite which celebrates family unity and continuity as the yeast is saved and reused year after year.
This is why my Grandmother insisted on stuffing it in my mouth every year. Don’t worry Nonna the panettone is on the table.