Panettone – An Anticipated Holiday Tradition in Italy

 

panetton ingredient 2

Panettone is an anticipated holiday tradition that places it at the center of Christmas celebrations. It is also one of the most involved and difficult Italian cakes.

Derived from  panetto, the size of a small loaf, it later rose to dome-like proportions as panettone “big bread”. A native Italian panettone is made over several days by artisanal bakers who hand-shape the finicky dough made with natural yeast that takes at least 36 hours to rise, then fold candied fruit into the dome-shaped cake.

There are competing stories about the varied history of panettone. From an ancient Roman bread sweetened with honey, to a luxury loaf prepared by personal chefs of popes and emperors, to a fanciful legend about a Milanese baker named Toni during the reign of Ludovico Sforza (1450-1520). Panettone as a modern Christmas dessert was introduced in 1919 by Angelo Motta, a Milanese confectioner and businessman. Motta adapted the mold for panettone, using a ring of paper to give the dough the vertical, puffed-top shape that we see today. Due to his efforts, panettone became the popularized icon of Milan and Christmas.

There is something innately festive about panettone. The puffed dome, the sweet bread dough studded with jewel-like candied fruits and plump raisons. Dramatically wrapped the Italian way with flowing bows in sparkling glossy boxes in the rich colors of the Renaissance. Italian bakers and pastry chefs continue the historical making of panettone every year during the Christmas season and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of their efforts.

Panic about Panettone

However many panettone purists are concerned about the integrity of today’s panettone. Representatives from the Italian consortium of bakers and confectioners state that  7 out of 10 Americans buying an ‘Italian-style’ panettone are getting a fake, an inferior knock-off that does not represent the true version. Commercially produced panettone further confuse the consumer with lesser quality ingredients, instant yeast and added preservatives.

Imitators share shelf space with large displays in supermarkets, big box stores and outlet shops sold at mass produced price points that a native panettone could not compete with. Often too sweet, too dry or without substance industrial produced panettone felt (and tasted) artificial relegating it to a cabinet of curiosities covered in dust.

Beyond the Industrial Dome

Artisan producers look at panettone as more than the ubiquitous dome-shaped cake of an Italian Christmas. It is a protected food tradition, a symbol of hospitality and conviviality that celebrates this special season. Reaching back artisan makers using quality local ingredients, innovate and  seek to preserve the scents and softness, color, texture and unique flavor of the traditional dome cake-like bread of Christmas.

Panettone now as then is a symbol of tradition and technique. Artisan producers manage the ingredients to create the characteristic elements of the panettone – the soft, elastic dough that makes it unique and the time it takes for the perfect rising. Believing that the wait too becomes a marker of quality and a symbol of the coming of Christmas.

panetone ingredients
The Magic of the Mix

The Eve of Easter in Milan

I wrote this post several years ago but the memory is as vivid now as then.  A must see under the Duomo if you are in Milano.

Even though we have 40 days to prepare, celebrating Easter seems to be more about bunnies and brunch then it does about a life changing transformation. For if we follow the teachings of faith we known that “if we die with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). This was never felt more deeply than by the Early Christians.  On all accounts their devotion and unwavering belief caused them to commit and transform their lives in a ways that seem impossible. Accepting a contra-lifestyle based on the teachings of an outlawed and unpopular doctrine of redemption often took them to the brink and it began with the sacramental waters of an Easter baptism.

Images of these early Christian baptisms took on a vivid reality when I first visited the Milan Duomo, a massive Gothic spired cathedral rising out of the concrete earth of Milan Centro like it had materialized from thin air. Described as one of the greatest churches in the world (second only to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome), the building of the Duomo took more than 500 years to complete. There are 5 naves divided by 40 pillars with 3,400 statues (1800 alone on the terraced roof).  It is a fairyland of pinnacles, spires and flying buttresses with a 4 meter gilded statue of the Madonna perched on the top of the highest spire.

duomo 1

The art and architecture of the Milan Duomo is amazing but what is more remarkable is what is hidden and unexpected. The 135 spires of the Duomo overshadow a little known paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below the surface of the city with baptismal pools (circa 378) used by the early Christians of Milan. Through a staircase on the left of the main door of the cathedral you descend into the excavated remains of a brick wall around the perimeter of a Baptistery and a Roman road. Walking along a raised platform you see a large octagonal frontal pool where the catechumens were baptized. The pool is impressive because of its size (6.10 meters in diameter) with concealed pipes that provided a channel of “holy water” sprouting from several jets.

BaptisteryA description of the space talks about the pool being clad in Greek marble and the original flooring and walls being made of black and white marble in geometric designs. It must have been an awe-inspiring event to be led to this place on the eve of Easter and to be immersed in the water to receive that sacrament that cleanses you of your sins and binds you to all of Christendom.  As many times as I’ve seen the Milan Duomo (at last count this would be 18), the one particular thing that stands out most in my mind is being in that underground space where lives were transformed forever.

5 Rules You Should Always Break When Traveling in Italy

5. Never Drive in Italy

Contrary to popular opinion, driving in Italy is not an extreme sport. Italy has an excellent network of motorways and if you are comfortable driving in the States, exercise common sense and be aware of your limitations based on language skills and itinerary you should be fine. Like all road trips you need to be flexible and have a sense of adventure. Expect to get lost even with a good GPS (mandatory). If you want to get off the tourist flow, travel like an Italian and see the country from the ground up, consider driving. Just remember do not park in a space marked Divieto di Sosta (No Parking) and follow a few helpful tips that I have learned driving in Italy.     ciao

4. Don’t Bother Visiting Milan

At first glance Milan can be a little intimidating. It doesn’t have the historical familiarity of Rome, the Renaissance art of Florence or the landscape setting of the Tuscan hill towns and for this reason many tourists tend to avoid spending time there. But that would be a pity because Milan has a style all its own, a style worth taking the time to see and get to know. Here is a list of must do’s for first time travelers to Milan. Sights and sounds they need to take the time to see and savor. I call it the M-List.

3. If You’ve Seen One Church in Italy You’ve Seen Them All

Each church in Italy is a time capsule of the art and history. Hidden meanings and messages that reveal themselves to those who take the time to explore them. Not only the great churches in the guidebooks but the small churches and chapels in the towns and villages contain works of art that are the envy of the greatest museums in the world. Each church has a architectural backstory and a sacred personality.

2. You Don’t Need to Know Italian

Of course, many Italians do speak English but if you will be traveling to little known places in Italy, outside of the tourist “comfort zone” you will need to understand and speak some Italian. That way you can experience all that Italy has to offer. Take some time before your travels to learn some basic Italian including verb conjugations. Phrase book Italian is confining and is a little like speaking from a script. Learning vocabulary is good but limited. Commit to a program that builds on more than rout sayings and idioms to carry on a conversation or you may end up like this.

1. Thinking That Traveling in Italy is Like Traveling in the States

You will be happier and more satisfied with your travels in Italy if you remember that you are traveling in Italy, a European country with a different monetary system, mindset and culture. Italians in Italy are not Italian-Americans. They are not stereotypical caricatures of the American media or even the same as our Italian-American relatives. They eat Italian food not Italian-American food. They don’t put Parmesan cheese or even call it Parmesan on seafood pasta or cut their spaghetti with a knife. They live in a political-economic system with different social mores and although there are more similarities than differences between us, respect and embrace the differences and you will have a more enjoyable time.

Engage in a mindful travel experience; actively attentive, aware (never order a cappuccino after 12 o’clock) open to the possibilities. Deliberately keeping in mind that you are a guest in their country and an ambassador of ours.

Love and Lesiure in Giardini di Via Stendhal

Although writing has become a routine part of my day, like Stendhal I find time spent in Milan to be entirely devoted to leisure and love.

Milan and its metropolitan commune are home to a branch of our Italian cousins and flying into Malpensa has always been a starting point for my taste travels in Italy. Before leaving on an Italian version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria visiting regional producers (many now friends) that I source for my business, I spend time in Milan with la famiglia. Time spent with generational layers of the past wrapped around new memories of the present with a loving Italian family I am so happy to know. Wonderful times eating, cooking, shopping and seeing Milano through their eyes and getting to know Italy in a unique and personal way. Stendhal obsessed unhappily for years about the unrequited love of a woman he had met in Milan. He even wrote a book about it which, despite his unhappy resolution, does contain some very profound thoughts on love including this one which you might have heard “In love, unlike most other passions, the recollection of what you have had and lost is always better than what you can hope for in the future.”

Despite this Stendhal tells us that his time spent in Milan was the happiest period in all his eventful life. I can understand this. There is much to do and see in Milan and it is a pity that it is often overlooked by most Italian travelers.

On my last trip to Milan we spent the day with our cousins in Porto Genova, a neighborhood of Milan named after the city gate of the old Spanish Walls of Milan. The Navigli district is located in this quartiere, an artsy part of the city with trendy nightclubs, shops and restaurants and a series of artificial canals designed by Leonardo da’ Vinci. Da’Vinci wanted to design a navigable waterway to connect Milan to other parts of Italy. The marble used to build Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo, was transported on the waterways of Navigli from Lake Maggiore near the Alps to the center of Milan.Cousins in Milan 2012 -Stendahl park I found myself at a ristorante near Giardini di Via Stendhal, a local park and a perfect place to enjoy a leisurely afternoon thinking that unlike Stendhal my recollection of  love in past times only gets better on each trip to Milan to see our family.

 

Collecting Christmas in Italian Silver and Gold

If you celebrate Christmas you probably have a collection of Christmas ornaments, snowmen or some other unique and treasured pieces that you lovingly use to decorate your home for the holidays. My mother loved Santas, for years I collected Nutcrackers and vintage Americana Christmas. I have a few family ornaments made of hand blown glass from the 1950’s that have been passed down. The reasons why and what people collect at Christmas are as varied as the personalities of the collectors. As to their worth, it’s often in the eye of the beholder or in some cases what the market will bear.

buccellati_christmas_ornament_sterlingItalian Christmas collectables are no different. Some have only sentimental value; others can be very valuable like those made by Buccellati who introduced its first sterling Christmas ornament to the U.S. market in 1986. These ornaments are made in Italy by a family of Italian goldsmiths who first opened their shop in 1919 near the La Scala Opera House in Milan. Their clients  included the Vatican and the Royal Courts of Europe, so that overtime the founder, Mario Buccellati,  came to be known as “The Prince of Goldsmiths.” Mario Buccellati drew upon the work of the Renaissance and 18th century craftsmen to design silver place settings and textured gold jewelry that were rare and exquisite with intricate work that resembles the look of fine fabrics.

The pictured vintage Christmas scene is valued at over$1300.00 and shooting stars, wreaths, doves or reindeers selling in the hundreds.

More  Buccellati pieces.

buccellati_christmas_ornament_world

Don’t Get Caught in Area C

parking_discThis was not my first traffic ticket in Italy but it was one that definitely screamed I should have known better. Most of my previous tickets had been for parking violations. Either I let the time on my parking disc expire or decided to tempt fate by parking in a restricted area. Not an area that was clearly posted as divieto parcheggio or divieto di sosta (Italian for no parking) but a less conspicuous blue lined area which in Italy is a no parking space.

My previous tickets all involved immediate feedback; a notice on the window of my rental car and a follow-up trip to the local post office. Unlike the US, Italy’s poste italiane is not just for sending packages. Most Italians are there to pay bills; electric bills, phone bills but you can also take care of your traffic tickets at the post office. My Italian cousins took me there and showed me how to pay my fine (about 35 EU at the time) to the amusement of the Italians standing in line watching gli americani struggle with Italian bureaucracy.

The traffic citation I am writing about today arrived  at my home address 7 months after the fact in an official looking envelope from the Commune di Milano. Written on stationary with the colored seal of the city of Milan it was presented with an impressive security stamp and signed Resp. Del. Proc. Dott. Tullio Mastrangelo.  It eloquently began with “Dear Madam, Dear Sir and ended with we hereby inform you that a fine has been imposed  . . . in violation of the Italian Highway Code”. Not for parking, not for speeding but for driving in the infamous Area C, a restricted or limited traffic zone (ZTL – Zona a Traffico Limitato) in the center of the city designed to reduce pollution by limiting traffic and promoting “sustainable mobility and public  transport”.

I’m all for that but let the driver beware, traffic ticketing in Italy is at an all time high. In 2009  an article in the Florentine stated that “every 40 seconds, a motorist in Florence receives a traffic violation with police issuing approximately 90 tickets every minute”. That translates to 1,253 tickets a day making Florence one of Italy’s most heaviest fined cities.  Huge volumes of vehicular traffic in cities like Milan, Florence, Pisa and other Italian cities have ZTL and pedestrian-only areas in the historical and hotel district where only cars with special permits may enter. These areas are posted but can be easily overlooked especially by tourists. Some navigational systems like Garmin have created digital maps of Area C zones to alert motorists of current restrictions.

Contrary to popular opinion driving in Italy is not an extreme sport. Motorways are good and Italian motorists do not all drive Ferrari’s but driving in Italy can be extremely expensive if you don’t pay attention to driving restrictions. Like our Area 51 Italian Area C zones are off limits and crossing the border without proper authorization can get you in trouble.

Driving ticket 2

The Misunderstood Italian

milan phone cover

After taste traveling in Italy for over 15+years and 15,000+miles sourcing products for CosituttiMarketPlace I’m asked a fair number of questions about Italy and Italians. Most of my answers are received with surprise and disbelief making me think that Americans in general don’t understand Italians. The mythology about the people and places of Italy is filled with misconceptions and most of it centers on food but there places that most tourists just don’t get and one of those is the city of Milan.

It may be that most foreign tourists to Milan come from other European countries (56%) with only 17% traveling from the US and it’s true that at first glance Milan can be a little intimidating. It doesn’t have the historical familiarity of Rome or the landscape setting of the Tuscan hill towns and for this reason many tourists tend to avoid spending time there. But that would be a pity because Milan has a style all its own, a style worth taking the time to see and get to know. Although Florence may be the beautiful and famous daughter of Rome with one of the largest collections of art and architecture on the planet*, Milan has a unique style that leads Italy into the 21st century. From Roman, medieval and Renaissance periods through Baroque, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau/Liberty and the nationalistic Novecento style architecture of the first half of the 20th century, the food, wine, art and design of Milan and environs could fill a taste traveler’s notebook many times over. With a series of subways (the Metro) and trams, getting around Milan is efficient, easy and inexpensive .

Here are a few sites that make Milan one of my favorite Italian cities.

Milan Duomo
Castello Sforzesco
La Scala                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   San Babila                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Ambrosiana
La Rinascente and Milan’s fashion District
Navigli
Brera                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       A stroll under the luminous crystal roof to the cafe’s and shops in the Galleria
San’AmbrogioAbbey                                                                                                                                                                                                                            The Last Supper

*60% of the world’s most important works of art are in Italy and almost half of those are in Florence