In Italy the beginning of February has nothing to do with groundhogs and shadows but rather with a cake-like bread, the blessing of throats and celebrating woolen blankets. These disparate, seemly unlike, items and events do have a common denominator in Italy and his name is San Biago.
San Biago or St. Blaise, like St. Nicholas, was one of those saints who accumulated the legends and lore of folk customs for a variety of reasons. Best known as the saint protector of the throat since he once saved a child from choking, San Biago is also the patron saint of shepherds and the woolen industry because he was allegedly martyred on a prickly stone table used for combing out wool. His feast day, February 3rd, is especially celebrated in Italian towns and European villages where wool was worked.
Coincidentally February 3rd is also the last “best buy date” for a Milanese panettone baked over the Christmas holidays. The citizens of Milan ( where a statue of the Saint sits atop a spire of their Duomo) save their last piece of panettone to eat that day to commemorate San Biago and a legend. Just before Christmas a woman went to have her panettone blessed by the village priest who could not bless the bread at the time. Leaving the bread, the priest thought that the woman had forgotten about it so he ate it himself. However she returned on the feast of San Biagio. To the priest’s great surprise, San Biago had interceded and the relieved priest found a whole panettone twice the size of the one left by the woman.
Today I’ll be eating my last slice of panettone under a warm woolen blanket invoking San Biago to protect me from the illnesses of winter. I never seem to have the willpower to save my panettone so this year I bought two, one to eat and one to use in place of the flu shot I never got. Grazie San Biago.
Panettone is a traditional Italian sweet bread that could just change the way you feel about fruitcake. Well it’s not actually a fruitcake, far from it. It’s light and airy with the incensual aroma of a Milanese pasticerria. In fact Milano is the birthplace of panettone. Commonly held legends as to its origin vary but one favorite story tells of a 15th century Christmas banquet given by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. There was no dessert until a young kitchen helper named Toni baked up sweet fruit-studded bread, thereby saving the meal and endowing the bread with its given name, panettone (bread of Toni). Descriptive and poetic yes but the realty may be less dramatic. Food historians credit the naming of this cake-like bread to the Italian word panetto meaning a small loaf of bread. Because the bread when baked increases in size to a cylindrical 12-15cm domed-shaped loaf the Italian suffix –one (pronounced o-neh), which implies something bigger, was added changing the name to panettone.
The popularity of Italian panettone has caused it to be duplicated and re-created many times over, surfacing in the most unlikely places; gas stations, Walgreens and big box stores. Don’t confuse panettone tradizionale with the mass marketed panettone found in big box discount stores in the States. It is about as far removed in taste and quality as mortadella is from b-o-l-o-g-n-a. A true Italian panettone should be fresh and flavorful, soft and airy.
The shelf life for an unopened panettone is typically 2 months. Traditionally in Italy a small amount of panettone is saved after the holiday to be eaten on February 3rd, the Feast of San Biagio. Legend has it that just before Christmas a woman went to have her panettone blessed by the village priest who could not bless the bread at the time. Leaving the bread, the priest thought that the woman had forgotten about it and so he ate it himself. However she returned, on the feast of San Biagio. The saint had interceded and the relieved priest, to his great surprise. found a whole panettone twice the size of the one left by the woman.
Since San Biago is the saint protector of the throat, it is believed that eating panettone on the saint’s feast day will protect you from the illnesses of winter. I never seem to have the willpower to save my panettone but this year I plan on buying 2, one to eat and one to use in place of the flu shot I never got.