panettone history


We hope you love mysteries, because when it comes to panettone bread history there are lots of great stories, some as far back as Ancient Rome. Surely all of these stories can’t be true, since we don’t really know what happens to Panettone until the 19th century, but nonetheless they’re an informative stroll through the pages of history. So buckle up, and prepare to learn the secret behind the panettone history in Italy.

Ancient Romans Invented Sweet Bread

Ancient Rome Shopping Panettone

Of course they did. The Romans invented practically everything so it isn’t surprising that they would be the geniuses behind the early origins of Panettone. In the ancient Roman Empire, the Romans created a special rising-dough bread recipe that used honey. It doesn’t resemble the panettone of today, but early Romans are responsible for the principles behind the bread. This knowledge was passed down through ages until it ended up in the city of Milan.

A Milanese Love Story – Panettone History

Ludovico Sforza Duke of Milan

Perhaps the most famous story is about Ughetto degli Atellani, a rich young man living in Milan during the year 1494. This was an exciting time for Italy, with Ludovico Sforza acting as the Duke of Milan. As legend goes, Ughetto was deeply, deeply in love with a young woman named Adalgisa. The problem was that his family and hers were very, very different. In other words, one family has a lot of money, the other…not so much. This mean that even if Ughetto proposed to Adalgisa for her hand in marriage, the Duke wouldn’t give the wedding his blessing.

Ughetto needed a plan, and this is where the panettone history comes in. Adalgisa’s family, although extremely poor, were very, very, talented. Her father worked in the kitchen of Ludovico Sforza and was renowned for his culinary skills. Ughetto’s plan was to invent a new type of bread to impress Adalgisa and win both her approval and the approval of the Duke.

He added new, special ingredients that nobody had combined before. Butter, eggs, raising, candied orange peel, zested lemons, zested oranges, and citron. The bread was an enormous success. Adalgisa was enamoured with her future fiance’s cooking and the Duke loves the new dessert. Pan del Ton (Toni’s bread, named after Adalgisa’s father Toni who Ughetto had to imitate) became a huge hit in Milan and lives on to this day. 

The Meaning of the Word

When you’re learning about a word you’re trying to discover it’s ‘etymology’ – and unfortunately the meaning behind the actual word itself isn’t that interesting. Panettone translates roughly as ‘large loaf cake’ and comes from the Italian ‘panetto’ which means small loaf cake and has just had it’s suffix replaced with ‘-one’ to make it ‘large loaf’ instead.

Furthermore, over the years, sort of ‘folk etymologies’ have cropped up that also attempt to explain the word. Back in the time of the ecclesiastic, there was a holy man named Father Antonio who always wore his ecclesiastical hat. For the uninitiated, think of ecclesiastical brothers as types of ‘lawyer monks’, whose job it was to oversee the religious law of the land. So, Father Antonio always wore his hat and was said to be very “fond of this ‘pane’. This hat and shape was then widely adopted and the Panettone was born. It resembled the shape of the famous hat so voila, the story behind Panettone history. This is evidenced when  Gianrian Carli in “Il Caffè” refers to panettone in 1850 in discussion with Pietro Verri. In these writings he alludes to a clerical (ecclesial) hat. Isn’t history fascinating?

The Modern Era 

Motta Italian baker in Milan

At the beginning of the 1900s there were two Italian bakers in Milan who discovered the hidden potential of panettone. They both wanted to make tons of it and send it all over Italy. Angelo Motta was the true innovator, and his special tall shape is the one we now see today. His secret to success was letting the bread rise three times, for almost an entire 24 hour day. That’s right. An entire day.

Next was Gioacchino Alemagna, who discovered this method and created his own brand. This makes him a bit of copy cat but led to some amazing competition and was the foundation of Italian Panettone history. This ‘Panettone war’ is the reason that it’s now so popular and famous throughout the world. Many immigrants brought Panettone to places in South America like Brazil and Argentina. You can tell it’s a South American Panettone because they don’t use the traditional fillings, but candied papaya instead. 

Check our delicious panettone recipes

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