Merry Christmas to all of you, my nears-and-dears. 🙂 Close your eyes and make a wish. 🙂 Be sure that it will come true because miracles happen at Christmas and we should believe in this magic period of the year. So, if you have already woken up, let the Christmas feast and party start. 😀 Wherever you are in the world, you are going to prepare the festive Christmas dinner following your traditions and of course sweets will be inseparable part of it. If you are American, you will enjoy a pumpkin pie. The English will enjoy their plum pudding while the Italians will definitely indulge in Panettone with cappuccino or ristretto in the morning, or with a glass of Marsala wine in the mid of the day, or with some sparkling Moscato after dinner.
The sweet Christmas bread is supposed to have origins dating back to the Middle Ages when ordinary people could afford richer and wheat bread only at Christmas. There was a tradition called rito del ciocco in Milan in the 15th century according to which people put a large piece of wood in the fireplace and women baked three loaves of wheat bread (we all know that wheat was a very precious ingredient in that period of time). When the bread was ready, the head of the family, usually the father or the grandfather, cut the bread into slices and gave a slice to each member of the family. The last slice was kept aside for the year to come and it was dedicated to the household, family and continuity.
On the other hand, if Christmas wheat bread wasn’t made at home, it was prepared in baker’s shops all over Milan. Bakers were allowed to bake wheat bread at Christmas only and it served as a gift to their customers. Thus this quite ancient custom of eating wheat and richer bred at feasts brought to the “invention” of il Panettone in Milan. That quite delicious sweet bread was enriched with much butter, eggs, sugar and raisins (ughett means raisins in Milanese dialect, by the wat) and was named Panattón or Panatton de Natal. The sweet bread (either of a small or bigger size) crossed the boarders of Milan and was spread also in the countryside where it was made of corn flour and it was flavoured with slices of apples and grapes.
Like almost any meal and sweet, there are several legends related to the origin of il Panettone and all of them are connected with the Sforza family of Milan. And here are they …
Sister Ughetta: This story is related to a small convent and one of its nuns – Sister Ughetta. That extremely generous nun wanted to lift up and cheer up the other nuns in the monastery on Christmas. That’s why she prepared a special cake for her fellow holy sisters. She added fruit and raisins to the sweet that was of crucifix shape at the top. Once baked, this cupola cake was a very pleasant addition to the otherwise scarce and poor festive dinner of the holy sisters. Ughetta (and also Ughetto) is quite similar as a name to the word for raisins in Milanese dialect. And why did I mention it again? Because the second legend tells about the love story of a young nobleman named Ughetto degli Atellani.
Two birds in love: This second legend is more romantic than the previous one, for sure, and it goes like this. Once upon a time there lived a handsome lad of the name of Ughetto Atellani. He was one of the noblemen of Milan whose parents would oppose to their son’s eventual marriage to a poor girl who wasn’t from their noble class. Ughetto knew that perfectly well but unfortunately, he couldn’t control his heart and fell in love with a local baker’s daughter.
The lad was very good at falconry and the hunting of hawks and it was his hobby. As the personal breeder of his master’s hawks and falcons, he flew birds near the baker’s shop every day. Ughetto sat under a tree close to the bakery and he watched the baker’s young and beautiful daughter (Adalgisa) work every day. Unfortunately, a boy at the baker’s shop got ill and the work doubled for the poor girl. The noble boy couldn’t stand that situation anymore. He couldn’t bear to see the lady of his heart so overloaded and under such stress and that’s why he decided to get closer to her at any costs and helped her. He disguised himself as a peasant and a poor boy and knocked on the baker’s door one day. He asked Adalgisa’s father to hire him and promised him to work for free. Of course, he was hired and he started working there. Ughetto replaced the ill boy and the work lessened a little for the young girl. Adalgisa was attracted by the lad very soon and they began meeting secretly under the moonlight sky every night. The young nobleman’s incognito daily life changed entirely and he discovered that, actually, he enjoyed baking.
Unfortunately, the bakery had the misfortune to have a competitor. A new and more prosperous bakery opened nearby and it stole the customers. The baker’s shop passed through a very hard time. The number of the bread sold reduced. The incomes were less. The old baker was about to go bankrupt. At that very moment young Ughetto reached a decision to help him. He liked the rustic and a little bit coarse corn bread prepared by Adalgisa but as a matter of fact, he preferred the floured-and-egged bread he was accustomed to. That was the reason why he used his creativity and started making a type of bread to which he added butter, fine flour, sugar and eggs as well as dried grapes, candied fruits and citron, and raisins to make it more festive.
But all those ingredients were not cheap at all. In order to afford to purchase them, he availed of his position at the Court of Duke Ludovico Maria Sforza. He sold his master’s falcons and hawks in order to buy the necessary products and soon his efforts were rewarded. More and more people and citizens liked that new and wonderful bread. They preferred it to the one of the competitor. Thus the baker’s shop gained much success and fame as well as more clients.
Being already a successful and famous baker, Ughetto thought it was high time he revealed himself and asked Adalgisa to marry him. Their marriage was even blessed duke Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. The wedding was arranged and Leonardo da Vinci was invited as a special guest. Ughetto’s “sweet-bread masterpiece” was served as the special dessert of the day, prepared in honour of the special guest and consequently, it was called Pan de Ton (or the bread of luxury in the local dialect).
The baked bread: The third and last legend is also connected with the name of the sweet bread. Principally, the name derives from the word “panetto” (or “dough” in English) plus the suffix “one” which is used to underline the grand size of a certain thing in the Italian language. Or the “coexistence” of panetto and one “gives a birth” to panettone or the big bread. But following the third legend, the name comes from Pan de Toni, or the bread of Toni? And who was Toni, as a matter of fact?
He was a young scullery boy who worked for the Court of Duke Ludovico in the 15th century. He prepared a sweet loaf of bread of his own using the leftovers he put aside for Christmas. He mixed the dough with some flour, eggs and sugar as well as he flavoured his humble sweet bread with raisins and candied fruits and some grapes. The obtained mixture was very soft and tasty, indeed, and it won Duke Ludovico’s heart immediately.
In fact, the Duke and all the rest got to know about Toni’s bread due to an accident that occurred in the Court kitchen. The chef prepared an amazing dessert for the Christmas banquet but unfortunately, he baked it. When the Duke demanded that the cake be served, the chef was desperate and he didn’t what to do. Then the lad came to him and offered him kindly his dessert. Actually, that sweet bread was the only solution at that time and it was served during a Christmas celebration. Duke Ludovico and his guests were greatly impressed with that new taste and congratulated the chef on his “sweet-bread masterpiece”. The chef couldn’t lie and admitted that actually, the young scullery boy was the only contributor to the amazing taste of the festive dessert. And that’s how the sweet read became known as panettone or the bread of Toni.
Nowadays, when you pay a visit to your friends in Italy at Christmas, you could bring them a Panettone and depending on the hour, you could indulge in with coffee, Marsala wine or lo spumante.
Cheers and Happy Christmas holidays 🙂