I adore a good love story. And cereal-based foods. Rarely do the two intertwine and become a $56 million-a-year worldwide export.
Legend has it that in 15th-century Italy, a well-to-do young man fell hopelessly in love with a beautiful plebeian, the daughter of a Milanese baker named Toni. Because Toni didn’t approve of their relationship, the bold youngster took a job at the bakery as an assistant to prove his loyalty. Soon thereafter, he created a sweet bread laced with candied fruit, different from anything the bakery sold.
The bread was a hit. Not only was it delicious, but it also sported a unique shape resembling a church dome, a cylinder topped with a cupola. In another display of selflessness, the love-struck gent gave full credit to Toni, the baker, and the bread came to be known as Toni’s bread, or pane di Toni—later panettone—in Italian.
That’s where the legend ends. I do hope the lovebirds were wed and lived happily ever after. Either way, that was just the beginning for panettone.
Emigrating Across the Atlantic
Toni’s bread, light and fluffy yet sweet and rich, was fancier than your everyday loaf. Though called a bread, it’s always been a dessert or snack in Italy. It soon became a holiday staple, served in vertically cut wedges and accompanied by beverages like hot cocoa or sweet wine. Think of it like the fruitcakes so often gifted—or re-gifted—during Christmastime in the United States: downright odd mid-summer, but in abundance during the holidays.
In Italy, panettone has remained much the same for several hundred years. But many Italians have left the country.
Around 1860, the first Italian diaspora, or large-scale migration, saw Italians emigrating to all over the world. There was a pull to Brazil: Slavery had been abolished but migrants were needed as laborers, and the country preferred white, mainly Catholic immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
Many Italians settled in Brazil, mostly entering through São Paulo’s main port of Santos, with their culture—including panettone—in tow. Today, Italian Brazilians are the largest group of people with full or partial Italian ancestry outside of Italy, with São Paulo being the most populous city with Italian ancestry in the world.
Once settled, they traded the Italian language for Portuguese, but panettone remained—and thrived. Today, Brazil is the world’s second largest producer of panettone, after Italy, and while most of the loaves are consumed domestically, they also export 4,400 tons, $14.4 million’s worth, to over 80 countries. Their chief importer is the United States, and that was reason enough for me to get on a plane to the source.
Panettone for All
My nose was aquiver with the rich smell of leavened bread as I made my way through Brazil’s first ever Panettone Salon in São Paulo. It was a convention of sorts, with dozens of loaves to taste, ranging from cake-like to health-conscious. I got to know several leading manufacturers, learned about the bread’s history, and wrapped my mind around the fact that 39,000 tons of it was consumed in Brazil in 2017.
But most importantly, I tasted and tasted more. What all the loaves had in common was a light, slightly chewy texture, satisfying but not overly filling, making them just as suitable for breakfast as for dessert. While the Italian flag’s green, white, and red is still reflected in many of the brands’ logos, and the holiday season is upon us, Brazil proved to me that this brioche-like bread is not Nonna’s Christmas panettone.
Over time, advancements in machinery, fermentation, and proofing have upped the quality of Brazilian panettone. But what really ensures that its star will continue to rise are its wide-ranging accessibility and recent considerations taken on consumer health.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. The complications of modern life give rise to practical products that make daily routines easier. Industrialized, packaged panettone is more readily available than ones made from scratch, providing a convenient alternative for those without the skills, time, or desire to cook at home.
Size is another consideration: Panettone used to come in just one, big enough to feed several people. If it went unfinished, it would dry out. Now, most producers offer four sizes, ranging from an 80- or 90-gram (under one-fifth of a pound) mini, a suitable snack for kids, up to 1-kilogram loaves for a large family to share. Costs also vary to accommodate every price point; those piled high at the grocery store cost less than ones found at specialty shops, but there’s something for every budget.
Finally, Brazil—and Latin America in general—has both an obesity and a diabetes problem, but Panettone manufacturers are doing something about it.
“Integral,” or whole-grain panettone is relatively new to the Brazilian market, fiber-rich with the addition of red quinoa, corn, amaranth, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, or chia seeds. They also come in reduced- or zero-sugar options. While this sounds like an odd direction for a traditionally sweet, festive bread, the loaves remain moist and fluffy, thanks to the same long mixing, fermentation, and proofing times.
Other health-conscious options include gluten- and lactose-free and low-sodium.
- Seeds, such as linseed or chia seeds, have fiber, omega-3s, and antioxidants that help treat type 2 diabetes and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Nuts, such as brazil nuts, walnuts, and almonds, are a source of polyunsaturated fat and antioxidants, which benefit cardiovascular health.
- Oat flakes are rich in beta-glucan, a soluble fiber effective in controlling cholesterol and glycemia.
- Fruits, dried or fresh, are good sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
The panettone the Italians brought to Brazil was directly related to the culture and tradition of Christmas. With almost 87 percent of Brazilians identifying as Christian, it makes sense that panettone remains synonymous with the holiday. At the salon, a wide array of holiday packaging and gift tins attested to the continued tradition.
But, by introducing myriad, timeless inclusions and fillings, ranging from healthy and energetic to downright sinful, Brazilian producers have eliminated the “panettone season;” the bread is now commonplace year-round.
Inclusions like cranberry, coconut, almonds, and hazelnuts beckon to the health-conscious, while fillings like dulce de leche and chocolate truffle scream “treat” or “dessert.” Others come with recipes for taking panettone to new heights, by adding layers of filling or frosting or topping it with fresh berries, turning the consumer into a partial chef. With such a broad range of flavors and richness, it really comes down to mood.
Back stateside, and with panettone front-of-mind, I see it more often, especially the Village brand. In 2017, Brazil sold us 2,800 tons of panettone, over $9 million’s worth. But the artisanal Florio loaf I brought to Thanksgiving, full of dried fruit and topped with an almond crust, I’d couriered all the way from Brazil myself.
After giving a slightly forceful explanation (“It’s bread!”) to the crowd, everyone tried it before our meal. Technically, it could have been a dessert, too, but that’s the beauty of panettone: It’s flexible. Next up for me: panettone French toast for Sunday Funday breakfast.
The Many Flavors of Brazilian Panettone
Traditional panettone contains dried fruit or small chocolate chunks. In Brazil, those traditional fruits are candied orange or citron rind, papaya, pumpkin, or a mixture thereof.
Brazil got inventive with other inclusions: plum, almond, hazelnut, bananas and cinnamon, cherry, cranberry, apricot, coconut, guava jam, peanut candy, raisins.
Sweet fillings ensure “dessert” status: vanilla, brigadeiro (a traditional Brazilian dessert), chocolate, cream cheese, dulce de leche, condensed milk, marshmallow, honey bread, petit gateau (chocolate fondant, a popular Brazilian dessert), lemon pie, truffle.
Amanda Burrill sees through an adventurous lens, typically focused on culinary and travel. Her education includes a bachelor’s in archaeology, a master’s in journalism, a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu, and wine and spirits credentials earned while living in Paris. She is a U.S. Navy veteran, Ironman triathlete, high-alpine mountaineer, and injury connoisseur who ruminates on UnchartedLifestyleMag.com