The history of panettone is full of fun folklore and variable origin stories, most dependent on the nonna with whom you last spoke. The product is a staple of Italian Christmas tradition, and with annual production numbers globally around 120 million panettoni, it is no wonder that everyone wishes to volunteer their own version of its origin story. While the technical etymology is that “panettone” translates to “large loaf cake,” where panetto is the small loaf cake, and the suffix “-one” makes it large, the folklore prefers to associate the name with characters of times past. We thought it would be fun to share some of the more popular stories.
One ‘historical account’ speaks of a nobleman of Milan named Ughetto degli Atellani from the late 1400s. Madly in love with the beautiful Adalgisa, the daughter of a poor baker, he sought to win her favor. Ughetto decided to disguise himself as a pastry chef and offered to work in the shop of her father, where he would invent a new unique bread to impress them all. He used yeast, flour, butter, eggs, sugar, raisins, candied oranges, and lemon zest. It was an enormous success! The dessert was sold across Milan, making the shop of Adalgisa’s father a fortune. With this, he was able to win her hand in marriage. It is fun to note that “ughetto” or “ughetta” are Milanese dialect for “uvetta,” or in English, “raisins.”
Another account puts the origins in the court of Ludovico -il Moro- Sforza, Duke of Milan. It was Christmas Eve, and during the royal banquet, the head chef of the Sforza family accidentally burned the dessert. The kitchen was in a panic. It was then that a young kitchen boy by the name of Toni came forward and decided to sacrifice his own yeast he had been saving for Christmas. He began to work it, adding flour, eggs, raisins, candied fruit and sugar, creating a particularly soft and very leavened dough. The dessert was so appreciated that the Sforza family decided to name it the “pan di Toni,” and over the centuries it came to be known as “panettone.”
While these stories are the most fun, the true origin of panettone is found in the widespread customs of the Middle Ages of celebrating Christmas with much richer bread than was of everyday use. One manuscript of the time from a tutor of the Sforza family, Giorgio Valagussa, attests to the custom of the heads of families sharing slices of large loaves of these breads to all the diners, and then saving one for the following year as a sign of continuity.
As for actual historical records, the first evidence of the documented existence of panettone is from 1606, where the fist Milanese-Italian dictionary speaks of a “Panaton de Danedaa,” a Pan Grosso usually made at Christmas. In the 19th century, a richer description arrived in another Milanese-Italian vocabulary of 5 volumes, where the “Panatton de Natal” is mentioned as a species of wheat bread decorated with butter, eggs, sugar, and raisins. By this time, mention of panettone very similar to today started to appear in recipe books as well.
Today’s widespread version of the panettone, however, was conceived by Angelo Motta, in the 1920s, when, taking inspiration from the kulic, an orthodox dessert eaten at Easter, decided to add butter to the recipe and wrap the cake in straw paper, giving it today’s look. He also pioneered the tall dome shape by making the dough rise 3 times, for almost 20 hours, before cooking, further adding to its soft and fluffy texture. Another baker of the time, Gioacchino Alemagna, adapted the same recipe and began his own major brand, competing with Motta, which led to the industrial production of panettone, and by the end of WWII, made it cheap enough for every household to enjoy, making it the #1 Christmas dessert.
With such a rich history, it is no surprise that this delicious bread continues to be a traditional staple of the Christmas season around the world. It has come to be enjoyed all year round as well, offered after dinner with dessert wines or at breakfast with coffee or tea.
We look forward to sharing this historical treat with you here in British Columbia.
If you wish to try the Panettone of old, then our Panettone Classico is the true historical one. Antise Vancouver also has two other modern variations, equally delicious. If you’re a chocolate lover, then definitely the Panettone Cioccolato is for you, and if you like that liqueur or lemon flavor, then our Panettone Limoncello will satisfy you greatly.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
We wish you a wonderful day 🙂