‘Panettone is, without a doubt, the king of the Italian Christmas table!’, tells me Dario Loison while a huge rack of freshly-baked panettones is swiftly wheeled past us.
‘England may have its Christmas turkey,’ – he continues, ‘but Italy has panettone!’
Around us, bakers dressed in white are busy making panettones. A scent of vanilla and citrus wafts through the air. The door of a large oven gets opened and I glimpse, in all their freshly baked glory, three enormous panettones inside it.
‘These are the Magnums’, Dario tells me. Apparently, each of these beauties weighs 10 kilos! With their round domes and cylindrical bodies, they look so inviting that I have to fight the urge to stretch my arm, tear off a soft fruity chunk and then have a sweet private moment gobbling it all down to the last crumb.
You see, I have been in love with panettone for a very long time. Ever since I took my very first bite off a panettone I had bought on a whim seduced by how it looked on a shelf in a London shop.
There is something truly irresistible about panettone. This legendary Italian sweet fruity loaf has a history that stretches back at least to the Renaissance.
There are several myths about its origins. Some believe that panettone was invented by a nobleman in love with the daughter of a difficult to impress baker.
Others think that panettone owes its name and its existence to a humble boy called Toni. He came with the idea to bake a fruity loaf with flour, eggs, sugar, raisins, and candied fruit after the chef of Milan’s ruler burned the Christmas cake.
Legends aside, what is known for sure is that in its modern domed shape panettone was first created at the start of the 20th century in Milan. Its lovely taste quickly won legions of fans to the point that nowadays panettone is the most Italian Christmas food staple.
Italy consumes 29 thousand tonnes of panettone each year at a total value of 217 million euros. Just under half of this amount or, to be precise 107,3 million euros, are spent on artisan panettones. In other words, panettones made by smaller-scale artisan producers, local patisseries and bakeries. These impressive figures were published in November 2019 by the Italian News Agency ANSA based on market research by CMS Bakery Solutions and Nielsen.
The love for panettone is not restricted just to Italy. From the US and the UK to Russia and Japan, panettones are sold both by luxury food shops and large supermarkets. Often year-round which is the opposite of what happens in Italy where panettone is still very much a Christmas tradition.
Why are we all so obsessed with panettone?!
It could be that it comes wrapped in a gorgeous box making you feel so special when you buy it or when you are given one as a present. It could be that it simply tastes so good with its juicy raisins and candied citrus cubes. Or it could be that it’s so soft and lovely to eat that it brings in one perfect bite the promise of all that is good about Christmas to your mouth.
So, having sampled and enjoyed dozens… OK, let’s be honest here! …hundreds of panettones through the years, I was really eager to learn more about the secrets and traditions of this most famous Italian Christmas dessert.
This is how on a cold and rainy Wednesday morning I found myself at Loison – one of Italy’s most renowned artisan panettone makers. After all, I thought, if I am to truly learn about what makes a great panettone, I better learn from the best.
Loison is a multi-award winning artisan bakery founded and developed – in true Italian fashion – by three generations of the same family. The grandfather Tranquillo Loison – a breadmaker and baker – started the business in 1938. His son Alessandro followed in his steps. Since 1992, Loison is run by Tranquillo’s nephew Dario who has turned it into one of the most innovative companies producing traditional Italian sweet fruity loaves, cakes, and biscuits.
It was his idea to reimagine the classic panettone. He started by introducing a panettone studded with candied cherries back in 1998. It was followed by a panettone with pieces of figs. Since then several new flavours have been launched year after year.
I look around Loison’s pretty as a picture shop. Right next door to the company’s head office and with a sprawling production area at the back, the shop is on a busy road in the small town of Costabissara and less than 15 mins away by car from the provincial capital of Vicenza in the Northern Italian region of the Veneto.
Gorgeous paper-wrapped boxes and tins with vintage images are artfully arranged on the shelves. There is a steady trickle of customers, eager to stock on panettone, cakes, and biscuits for the holidays.
Next to the boxes with classic panettone, I spot panettones with tempting flavours and creams like apricots and ginger, five citrus fruits, sugared chestnuts, mandarin, even liquorice and saffron. In addition to two panettones with floral scents – one rose and one camomille. Plus a panettone with a blend of late harvest wines!
‘Here, try this!’, Dario tells me. The panettone has a beautifully porous texture and is generously studded with little chunks of candied mandarins. I take a small bite. It feels very soft, very light, and it reveals a gorgeous fresh scent. It’s like I have just plucked a juicy mandarin off the branches of a tree in the citrus groves of Sicily.
‘Lovely!’, I think and then, curious, I ask: ‘What’s your newest panettone flavour, then?!’
‘Here it is!’, Dario says.
‘NeroSale Panettone‘, I read on the elegant box adorned with a chain strap. ‘Salted caramel and single-origin dark chocolate!’
Salted caramel has been all the rage in the last few years. How it would translate to panettone though?! I take a tentative bite and I am in for a pleasant surprise. The saltiness of the thick, gooey caramel is beautifully emphasised by the bittersweetness of the dark chocolate. The taste keeps evolving as I chew revealing a loving marriage of salty and sweet. The panettone’s spongy texture envelopes it all in a soft embrace.
‘This is good!’, I say. It’s the understatement of the year but I am too busy taking my next bite instead of coming up with properly descriptive words.
‘We started with the classic panettone’, Dario continues. ‘It’s made using over 15 ingredients. It’s studded with currants, Candied Sicilian orange peels, and Calabrian citron. It’s scented with vanilla. It takes the central stage during Italy’s Christmas celebrations. Then we expanded on it by creating our new panettone flavours. We always strive to craft a truly exclusive Italian product.’
For example, he tells me, Loison’s panettone with figs was inspired by centuries-old Italian traditions as figgy bread used to be such a staple rustic local food. The citrus fruits used by the company come from the South of Italy, the apricots – from the valley of the River Po, the honey, milk and butter – from the Italian mountains. The most important thing though, emphasises Dario as we walk to the production area, is the actual panettone-making process.
Loison’s panettones take 72 hours and 13 steps to make from start to finish. The process follows the best artisanal traditions including several stages of slow and natural rising. Many of the operations are performed entirely by hand.
The starter dough begins as a blend of wheat, flour, water, milk, and fruit which is then set aside to spontaneously ferment. The thus created sourdough contains billions of microorganisms which multiply and stimulate the optimal leavening. This translates into a final product that is soft and spongy, it’s very easy to digest and, above all, is naturally free from any pathogenic germs so there is no need for preservatives.
The next step is to feed the starter dough with flour and water – a slow operation that stretches over many hours and depends on the experience of the baker. Then, it’s time to add the base ingredients – more flour and water as well as sugar, eggs, and butter. The panettone dough is kneaded three times and left to rise after each kneading.
The individual panettones are then portioned and shaped with periods of slow rising strictly observed after each step. The final rising lasts 12 hours and guarantees that specific panettone-aroma that engulfs you as soon as you open the box and makes you fall in love with panettone time and time again.
The panettones are then scored. In other words, the bakers cut a cross shape on top of each panettone. Called scarpatura in Italian, this step is done entirely by hand. The result is that there are no two panettones that are completely alike.
‘Scoring the panettones by hand is part of our artisan heritage. The scoring helps the panettone open like a flower during the slow baking’, explains Dario. ‘It helps to develop the flavours and then again, it looks beautiful, too.’
The panettones spend about an hour in the oven at a temperature of 180-190 degrees Celsius. This is followed by a cooling period of six to eight hours which the panettones spend hanging upside down to preserve their domed shape.
Once completely cool, each panettone is hand-wrapped in boxes and paper created by Dario’s wife – the designer Sonia Pilla.
Under her own brand – Sonia Design – she is in charge of the sophisticated look of Loison’s panettones, cakes, and biscuits. Dreamy florals and antique clocks, gardens in bloom, as well as vintage perfume bottles, quirky buttons, and Palladian arches grace Sonia’s designs.
We are now in the packing room where a team skillfully wraps by hand and adorns with bows hundreds of panettones. From here, Loison’s panettones and other products travel to all corners of Italy and the world.
‘What makes a perfect panettone for you?’, I ask Dario.
‘The perfect panettone needs to satisfy all senses!’, he says. ‘From the eyes taking in the panettone’s beautiful outside and inside colours to the fingers touching the soft, spongy texture and taking delight in it. From the nose feeling the unmistakable aroma of vanilla and butter to the lips and mouth tasting panettone bite by bite and enjoying the full flavour of the citrus pieces. And, finally, it is in your heart where the love for real, artisan panettone is born.’
While they rule over the Italian Christmas table, Loison’s panettones are sought year-round abroad where eating panettone is not tied up exclusively to Christmas.
‘In France, for example, they eat panettone with meats for that nice contrast of sweet and savoury.’, Dario explains. ‘In many countries, they also toast panettone for breakfast no matter the season. So, we now also make individually packed slices of panettone to make it easier for the busy person in the morning’, he adds.
The innovation of panettone doesn’t stop here. Over the years, Loison has also introduced panettone macarons, panettone lollipops, and even panettone powder to cook with.
Thanks to Loison’s innovations, many chefs are also looking for new groundbreaking ways to reinterpret panettone. Since 2010, the company publishes an online magazine – In Solito Panettone – where panettone is liberated from the strict festive cliches.
Recipes developed by renowned Italian and international chefs (including 9 Michelin-starred ones) for both sweet and savoury dishes all make creative use of panettone. So that in the magazine you will find such groundbreaking dishes as ramen with panettone, sweet Istrian soup with panettone NeroSale, and even oysters and scallops with panettone.
At the same time, Loison carefully preserves the traditional knowledge about panettone. Based on 20 years of research, the company has created its own Museum and Taste Library. The collection is carefully curated and it contains both ancient and contemporary tools and documents dedicated to the art of bread-making and fine pastry production. From vintage dough mixers and mechanical beaters to over 2,000 volumes with recipes and writings by foodies and chefs, this large collection provides an extensive historical reference tracing the development of baking in Italy and beyond.
Panettone takes centre-stage in both Loison’s Museum and Library. Hundreds of documents, postcards, flyers, posters, newspapers, and magazines trace its history. There are even over 100 vintage hatboxes used as panettone packaging from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.
‘Which panettone do you serve on your family’s Christmas table?’, I ask Dario one last question after my whirlwind journey through the world of panettone.
‘We serve three or four panettones. The more, the better’, he tells me. ‘A classic one, for sure, but also our latest flavour and some all-time favourites. It’s the highlight of our Christmas lunch!’
It’s still raining outside when I leave Loison’s premises behind. Yet the day is not gloomy anymore. I have had a chance to learn more about one of Italy’s most loved food icons. From its history and traditions to its modern-day flavours and gorgeous presentation, I feel I have uncovered many of the secrets that make panettone such a success worldwide.
For while Italy has panettone, panettone has the world!
Many thanks to Loison and Dario Loison for the interview and the first-hand introduction into the exciting world of artisan panettone.
Please, note, that this is not a sponsored post. The above blog post is based entirely on my personal interest in panettone and my desire to write and publish well-researched and well-written features based on good journalistic practices.
For More Information about Christmas in Italy, Please, Read and See:
- Christmas in Italy – 50 Fun Facts About the Italian Holiday Season
- Christmas Guide for Northern Italy – The Ultimate List of Christmas Markets, Events, and Happenings
- Italy’s 5 Christmas Gift-Bearers
- Christmas Markets – Best 5 Things to Buy This Festive Season
- Mandorlato Veneto – The Taste of Italian Christmas
- Christmas at Lake Garda – A Great Italian Day Trip
- Our Second Christmas in Italy
- My Best Italian Christmas Experience: The Living Nativity Scene in Vicenza
- Setting Up for a Magical Christmas
- Video of the underwater Nativity scene in Garda Town on Lake Garda
- Video of the Christmas lights in Vicenza, Northern Italy
- Video of the Nativity scene in the Convent on Mount Berico in Vicenza, Northern Italy
- Video of putting up the Christmas lights in Vicenza, Northern Italy
- Video of the ice rink in Cittadella,Veneto, Northern Italy
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