What is panettone and who controls it? The gold rush is on
Who owns the panettone?
Over the past decade, the Christmas classic has moved beyond its Italian borders and gained a global profile. Like Basque cheesecake brulee and French croissants, panettone is tested and processed away from home, with new flavors like black sesame, Aperol spritz and cacio e pepe. There are Japanese versions leavened with sake lees and Brazilian versions stuffed with dulce de leche; supermarket minis that cost $2 and truffles that fetch nearly $200.
When the standard was established, most likely in 15th century Milan, panettone was a sweet domed bread with a tender, golden crumb, fragrant and sprinkled with sweet fruit. It belongs to the same tradition of luxurious holidays as the German stollen, the Polish chalka and the British fruitcake: treats prepared once a year from expensive stores of butter and eggs, refined flour and sugar, Asian spices and candied fruits from the Mediterranean. Chunks of chocolate were added later, and regional ingredients like lemon on the Amalfi Coast and hazelnuts in Piedmont.
With the unification of Italy, the panettone became a national symbol of Christmas; extravagantly wrapped and ribboned loaves became status symbols and popular gifts. But with the advent of commercial baking, the product inside the boxes became increasingly dry and flat-tasting, with cheaper ingredients like candied squash and powdered milk.
The skyrocketing appreciation of panettone is both restoring interest in the bread and fomenting new conflicts among those who make it. Disputes erupted between purists and ultrapurists, between traditionalists and modernists, between Italy and the rest of the world. The battles have been fought in unions, legislatures and online, where a passionate global community of sourdough bakers weigh in on issues such as hydration, sourness and almonds versus hazelnuts.
Laura Lazzaroni, journalist and bread consultant, said that panettone follows the arc traced by pizza: a food that is not considered particularly interesting at home spreads abroad, is adopted by foreign artisans , then returns with great fanfare.
“We never fell in love with pizza, but we didn’t think much about it,” she said. “Then people started coming back from America saying, ‘I had better pizza in California than in – insert the name of my town in Italy here – and we have to do something about it. “”
Now that panettone’s reputation has grown, so have Italian bakers, who are fighting not only for ownership of this tradition, but also for market share. Conpait, the bakery trade group, estimates the market will be around $650 million this year, with 10% growth in “artisanal” products over “industrial” products. Best-of lists, awards and contests like the new Coppa del Mondo del Panettone have multiplied.
“It’s a world championship, not a church cake sale,” said Giuseppe Piffaretti, who started the Coppa del Mondo in 2019.
The fight to control panettone has been raging for 20 years, ever since Italian exporters sounded the alarm that foreign-made versions were capturing the global market.
Panettone has long been popular in Argentina, Peru and Brazil, where Italian cuisine arrived with immigrant populations in the late 19th century. Many panettones sold in American supermarkets are made in South America, notably by the giants Bauducco and D’Onofrio.
Unlike tomatoes from San Marzano or mortadella from Bologna, panettone from Milan is not a regional specialty protected by the European Union labeling system. Luigi Biasetto, a top baker in Padua, is leading an effort to have panettone declared a World Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, as Neapolitan pizza was in 2017.
In 2005, the Italian government passed laws that dictate the ingredients and decreed that “natural fermentation” is necessary to produce a panettone labeled “Made in Italy”. But the code makes no distinction between wild and cultivated yeasts, between organic flour and bleached flour, between candied fruit in sugar and glucose, distinctions that have become increasingly important for bakers and customers.
Like all breads, traditional panettone was naturally leavened, giving it a taste, flavor and texture that got lost in translation to industry, like the switch from aged cheddar to American cheese.
The best combine the fluffiness of cotton candy, the creaminess of French toast, the sweetness of a fresh donut and the buttery smoothness of poundcake. Today, modern bakers are trying to recapture those qualities, despite — or because of — the notorious challenges of making panettone from scratch.
“It’s the hardest product to make,” Piffaretti said. “Panettone is not a recipe; it’s a lifestyle.
Iginio Massari, a nationally revered master in Brescia (his panettone is simply called “L’immortale”), said it takes 10 years to train an employee to make it properly.
Mr. Massari’s American protege, Roy Shvartzapel, put it another way: “Panettone is the top of the mountain” in pastry.
Two separate batters are needed, each a stimulating blend of high-gluten flour to provide structure, support long fermentation, and absorb incredibly high amounts of fat and sugar. The first dough is slowly fermented to a specific level of acidity, which takes 12 to 24 hours, depending on microbial activity, and requires constant monitoring of temperature and humidity.
Despite the high skill barrier, hundreds of individual panettone makers flocked to the bewildering new array of competitions. The Coppa del Mondo de Panettone should not be confused with the Panettone World Championship, nor with the Panettone Day competition held in Milan, with the Tenzone del Panettone (panettone duel) in Parma, nor with the prestigious national competition Artisti del Panettone. The Panettone Appreciation Society of Japan, founded in 2020, held its first championship last month.
“Every pastry chef now wants to have their own competition, but it’s confusing for customers,” said Georgia Grillo, whose panettone has often reached the final at NeroVaniglia pastry shop in Rome. “There are too many championships.”
La Coppa del Mondo is the only major one based outside of Italy, but not far away: Mr. Piffaretti’s bakery is in Lugano, Switzerland, about 80km from Milan. Yet its competition aims to expand the reach of panettone, allowing entries from countries like the United States, Spain, Algeria and France. This year, a competition round took place in Singapore, home to several of Asia’s most prestigious culinary schools. (Still, Italians win most of the titles, and culinary schools and hotel chains have started flying winners to give workshops in places like Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai.)
Although each competition requires bakers to follow Italian law from 2005, other rules are often influenced by sponsors, such as fruit producers Agrimontana or flour producers Dallagiovanna, which require competitors to use their products. (Like Italian soccer players, Italian pastry chefs often wear uniforms plastered with sponsor logos.) These competitions are looked down upon by many champions, like Mr. Biasetto, who uses only his own flour mix and starter. 90 years old.
He and Mrs. Grillo belong to a confederation of strict sourdough purists, the Accademia dei Maestri del Lievito Madre e del Panettone (Academy of Sourdough and Panettone Masters). Its members split from the larger Accademia dei Maestri Pasticciere (Academy of Pastry Masters) in 2020 over the question of whether panettone could be leavened with added yeast or only with natural sourdough, called “lievito madre “. The group’s president, Claudio Gatti, called it “the only possible way to make real Italian panettone”.
High-end patisseries and design houses like Gucci and Fornasetti have long dominated the global artisan panettone market. Today, smaller artisan bakeries are trying to get started, with popular flavors like Nutella, high-profile ingredients like Belgian centrifuged butter and vanilla beans from Madagascar, and new techniques. Olivieri 1882, in Vicenza, makes not only its prized classic, but also a limited “super classic”, with three batters and a four-day fermentation. Infermentum, in Verona, bends to pasta of candied oranges and lemons with the traditional pieces of peel.
America’s panettone revolution has so far been led by Mr. Shvartzapel, who cooked at Balthazar in New York and baked at the French Laundry in California before turning to baking under Pierre Hermé in Paris, where panettone is popular. He fell in love, describing his first bite as a “smooth, delicious cloud”.
“I had never thought of that before,” he said.
But after returning to the United States in 2006, he found he couldn’t think of anything else. He moved to Brescia, Italy to study with Mr. Massari. Mr. Shvartzapel returned with two goals, both chimerical: to open an all-panettone bakery and to take panettone beyond Christmas, complete with fresh fruit and seasonal flavors. Shortly after this bakery, From Roy, opened in San Francisco in 2015, her panettone landed on Oprah’s “favorite things” list, and a star was born.
Mr. Shvartzapel’s innovations, while widely respected in Italy, have brought even more drama to the panettone debate. Like many modern sourdough bakers, he nurtures an “open crumb” with visible air pockets and tangles of gluten that make his creations tall and bulky. On social media, Mr. Shvartzapel’s alveoli have become a global topic of discussion.
Some bakers, like Mr. Piffaretti, feel that this looser look makes his panettone look inauthentic; others believe it is a return to tradition.
Last year, Mrs. Lazzaroni, the bread consultant, organized a museum exhibition on the evolution of Italian cuisine from 1970 to 2050, including three panettones: one from industrial producer Alemagna, one made by Mr. Massari and one from Mr Shvartzapel.
“Panettone is a perfect example of how Italian taste always travels back and forth, becomes contaminated and then reborn,” she said. “It would be a mistake to see it as something that belongs only to us.”