~ How do you
say Merry Christmas in Italy ? "Buon
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
main day for gift giving is Epiphany, the 12th
day of Christmas when the three Wise Men gave Baby
their gifts. In Italy, presents are brought by
La Befana, who arrives in the night to fill children's
celebrates its traditional sweets throughout the holiday
season. Every region has its own delicious specialties.
is the cherished Italian holiday bread. Jeweled with
candied fruits (particularly citrus) and
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
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.
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
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.
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
to bring honey and spice cakes to the nuns as a
form of census. The cakes were so delicious that
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.
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.