To panettone or not to panettone…

I fondly remember growing up in Western Australia: every year, my Sicilian Grandmother would proudly pull out and slice some sweet panettone bread after Christmas lunch. For Nonna, the fluffy mushroom-shaped loaf was a fine treat filled with candied orange, citron, lemon zest and raisins.

As a fussy teenager, I hated it. I was usually too full to enjoy anything else, and since it wasn’t winter, it felt like I was eating dry and crumbly sand in my mouth.

Christmas in the antipodean summer is never suited to winter delicacies, but this never stopped my Nonna. Nor did it dampen the determination of  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 colourful packaging which promised a divine dessert, naively believing the illusion of the image on the box. As most people know, nor the size or volume of cream corresponds to the promise on the exterior shot. So after the first bite it would be the same old sandpaper in my mouth.

After Christmas I would promptly forget about the Christmas sweet bread until Nonna pulled it out again the following festive season. It was a strange kind of panettone groundhog day. Every year I would take a slice with my Nonna professing it to be the best thing ever, and would immediately end up spitting it out into a napkin.

Fast-forwarding many years later, after I was married, my Sicilian husband, brother and sister-in-law and three nieces and nephews came to Western Australia for Christmas. They packed their panettone in their suitcase, insisting it would not be Christmas without one.

After our barbecue at the beach, the Italians insisted on their coffee and panettone.

They had brought a coffee percolator and Italian bottled water with the panettone after we told them that espresso in Oz is never the same as in Italy. Determined to experiment and prove me wrong, they fired up a gas stovetop. And just like in Sicily, the coffee was on, and the panettone was sliced.

Sitting under the eucalyptus shade, we sipped our dirty water and munched on stringy sourdough. Nothing was said in that precise moment of disappointment but everyone knew they were terrible. Months later, my sister-in-law admitted in a conversation with someone else that neither coffee nor panettone is the same in Australia. She theorised it must be the air that makes good coffee and the cold which makes you savour panettone. 

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. An excellent strong black coffee is an Italian thing. If you always have a Moka coffee machine for making espresso, the more it makes, the better it will taste.

When it comes to panettone and its plainer cousin pandoro, I think it is a strictly winter thing. After two decades of Christmases in Italy, my twenty-plus year hate has transformed into love. I still fussily pick out the sultanas and candied fruit, but when the December chill comes and I begin to see Panettone and Pandoro on supermarket shelves and in pastry shops, I always put a few in my shopping cart. It’s great to dip into a milky latte or as dessert.

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 summertime festivities, I would become sulky and book plane tickets to avoid it.

But over the 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.

Now I catch up on my reading, get sloshed on Prosecco, Grappa and dive into the comforting and cascading bounty of winter food in Italy, all with a hedonistic revelry that would make any Sicilian proud.

I’ve learned to love panettone. And don’t mind nibbling a piece while toasting my feet in front of a log fire. Winter can be warm and cosy. I almost look forward to it.

Every year Christmas panettone and pandoro are exchanged as gifts. We buy our favourite brand make sure we have plain pandoro for those who don’t like sultanas and candied fruit. We need to get one with some kind of glorious cream from gianduia (hazelnut and chocolate) or crema pasticcera (custard cream). Or with chocolate chips or pistachios or any other array of flavours or combinations which is only limited by the Italian pasticceria’s imagination and creativity. The array of flavours usually means we are eating pandoro and panettone until late February.

Strangely enough, during the pandemic, there was a bizarre shortage of Panettone treats. The last two Christmases have been sad occasions, but there has been the usual array of seafood, roast meats, pasta and usual Christmas fare. At the beginning of the lockdowns in Australia, there was panic buying of toilet paper. In Italy, pasta sold out fast. During the lockdown, supermarket shelves were emptied of all pasta except for penne lisce, the most hated pasta form by Italians, followed by farfalle in a close second place.

 And as most other parts of the world delved into bread making and baking, there was a shortage of yeast, flour and eggs. But in Christmas 2020, there wasn’t a panettone or pandoro to be found. The few in the supermarkets were quickly sold out and by Christmas week, the only ones available were those made by local bakeries, which are pretty expensive in comparison. Thank goodness 2021 is looking much better for panettone and pandoro.

The only panettone I tend to smirk at these days is Cinepanettone, an Italian cinematic genre that inflicts corny comic flicks on the Italian public every December. Movies like Christmas in the Caribbean, New York or other innocuously exotic locations are then painfully heaped with slapstick routines, half-naked women and cliché after cliché. It is all popular but is the cause of a collective intellectual fermentation and eventually gives your brain terrible indigestion.

Pandoro and Panettone in Italy are lighter and ever more fragrant; that’s why no one can resist. Since it is only produced for the Christmas season, it is simply freshly made here in Italy. I’m sure the imported varieties that make their way to Australia can never match those made in local patisserie all over Italy in the month of December. Even though panettone is also made in Australia too, it simply doesn’t fit the season.

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. Toni stumbled on this special recipe after accidentally burning the Christmas cake.

In a blind panic, to avoid losing his job and this employer’s wrath, Toni used his stash of mother yeast, kneading it several times with flour, eggs, sugar, raisins and candied fruit to create a substitute dessert. Luckily 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 that celebrates family unity and continuity as the yeast is saved and reused year after year.

This is why my Grandmother probably insisted so emphatically on stuffing it into my mouth every year.

Don’t worry, Nonna, the panettone is well and truly on the table now that I’ve finally learnt to appreciate it.