Panettone gets a makeover
Until recently, Milan’s Christmas speciality seemed to be on the wane, with the same old traditional versions appearing in the shops each festive season. Now, though, there are countless different types of panettone. The shake-up started in a rather low-key way during Expo (as a cake that was synonymous with Milan, the cake was always going to feature prominently at the city’s big food-themed event, however out of season it was), and since then efforts have been made to reinvent the product. All kinds of competitions and rankings appeared for a product that was becoming less seasonal and more national, and a few brilliant variations on the theme actually came from the south of Italy. Some of the most interesting ideas drew on local specialities, and even the Slow Food movement got in on the act. There was a Sardinian version flavoured with myrtle, beer and pompia (a variety of lemon native to Sardinia), while Sicilian panettone was flavoured with manna, a tree-bark sap.
Now, leading chefs (like Iginio Massari and Sal de Riso who also has a version stuffed with ricotta and pear) are also vying with each other to come up with the best speciality, so a veritable explosion of flavours and colours is to be expected this Christmas.
There are two main categories: classic panettone, which is all about the quality of the ingredients and the lightness of the mixture and getting the proving process just right. This traditional type now also comes in wholemeal, organic and vegan versions.
And then there are the creative variations, with unexpected toppings and fillings made from imaginative new mixtures. Chocolate is a favourite addition, ancient grains (such as einkorn) and even vegetal carbon (biochar) are also being used extensively.
Fillings range from candied pear, apple and apricot to radicchio and eggplant, Limoncello cream, Moscato wine, grappa and Ligurian rose syrup, and can even incorporate Saline di Cervia artisanal sea salt and Chinantla vanilla from Mexico.
Other features include hand-made glazings and toppings, which frequently involve chocolate in its various forms, orange, pistachio and ginger, ingredients that now seem to be turning up just about everywhere.
To set these new panettones apart from their industrial counterparts, much is being made of the so-called “clean label”: the use of unadulterated, high-quality ingredients free of additives and preservatives. The point of reference in this remains the sweet focaccia made by Claudio Gatti of the Tabiano patisserie, who we interviewed this summer for HostMilano. For its 2017 edition it chose to use ten natural, organic brown sugars, and sourdough mother yeast, or live yeast, which is easier to digest.
The renewed success of panettone is driven also by the desire to return to more artisanal production methods, also outside Italy: last year, exports were worth 60 million euros, a figure that should grow by 10% this year. Panettone has become particularly popular in France, Germany and the UK, but there are also plenty of panettone lovers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan and China. To say nothing of the USA, where the phenomenon was recently the subject of a New York Times article on how it has become an “obsession” for American bakers: “To make panettone is to embark on a long, expensive and unpredictable journey, risking disaster at every turn” it said. Be that as it may, we like to think of it as another example of a truly excellent Italian product conquering the world.