~ How do you say Merry Christmas in Italy ? "Buon Natale" ~

 

Christmas season in Italy is traditionally celebrated December 24-January 6, or Christmas Eve through Epiphany. This follows the pagan season of celebrations that started with Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival, and ended with the Roman New Year, the Calends. However there are lots of Christmas things to see during December prior to Christmas, many starting on December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.

Although Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) and giving presents on Christmas are becoming more common, the main day for gift giving is Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men gave Baby Jesus their gifts. In Italy, presents are brought by La Befana, who arrives in the night to fill children's stockings.

 

 

Italy celebrates its traditional sweets throughout the holiday season. Every region has its own delicious specialties.

Panettone is the cherished Italian holiday bread. Jeweled with candied fruits (particularly citrus) and raisins, it first came into being in Milan about 1490 and was quickly adopted throughout Italy, from the Alps to Sicily. Legends abound concerning the origin of panettone. The most popular is one that tells of a young aristocrat smitten with the daughter of a pastry chef named Toni. To impress the father of his beloved, the young man pretended to be an apprentice pastry cook and invented a wonderful sweet dome-shaped bread of exceptional delicacy. This new fruit bread was an enormous success; people streamed into the bakery to buy the exceptional "pan de Toni."

In Milan, businessmen adopted the habit of giving panettone as a Christmas gift to their clients. However, for a long time panettone was seen as a luxury accessible only to a select few, until the development of new production techniques made it available to everyone. A process combining natural yeast and a paper mould allows the yeast to leaven the dough to produce a cake that is light as a feather.

 

Panettone

 

In Venetia Pandoro was invented, shaped like a Christmas tree and dusted with snowy icing sugar to represent snow or twinkling stars. In fact, if it is cut horizontally, each slice looks like a star. Pandoro's popularity runs a close second to that of panettone. Pandoro, or "golden bread" is of more recent origin and perhaps for this reason is more representative of modern tastes. Pandoro was first produced in Verona a century ago, at a time when changing tastes favoured lighter yeast breads rather than heavier almond paste creations. It closely follows a traditional Venetian production method

Serving: As with panettone, pandoro can be enjoyed on its own; traditionally, however, it is napped with cream or served with a sauce made from mascarpone, champagne, melted chocolate or whipped cream. Sometimes the top is hollowed out and filled with iced cream, zabaglione or other tasty fillings.

 

 

From Sienna comes Panforte ("strong bread"), a dense confection rich in spices, honey and dried fruit. It's traditionally served with sweet wine. It is said that in 1205, serfs and peasants from the convent of Montecellesi were obliged to bring honey and spice cakes to the nuns as a form of census. The cakes were so delicious that they soon fell into the hands of the lay people!

At the time, herb and spice-based medicinal mixtures were made in the convents; later on these tasks were given to speziali (pharmacists); the responsibility for making panforte was also passed on to them. That is why, even today, some of the best-known brands of panforte still bear the names of the old pharmacist families. The best-selling variety today is Margherita Panforte, named in honour of Queen Margherita, wife of the Italian king Umberto I.

While it provides a special touch to any meal, panforte is especially popular during the holiday season.

Ricciarelli have been popular for centuries. Like every sweet and almond-based dough, they were called "marzipan." Documents from the Renaissance describe sumptuous banquets in France and Italy where ricciarelli were served. Today, these thin diamond-shaped biscuits are still a great favourite; they are served for special occasions or during the holiday season. Their presence, with their distinctive taste and crunch, always adds a festive note to dessert platters.