Panforte di Siena
Whenever I think of my friend, Stan, and Christmas, I think of panforte. I do the same when I think about Italy at Christmas time. I remember – it was my wonderful 18th birthday when I first stumbled on something as divine as panforte – the dense taste of Christmas mixed with nuts, dried fruits, and who knows what else. At the time, getting panforte in Latvia took a lot of luck, and I was lucky. I was eager to bake one myself, but since it had to be baked on two sheets of oblata (and I wasn't smart enough to find one), all I could do was imagine how our apartment would smell while panforte was in the making. Plus, to buy all of the ingredients was very expensive, and for someone who lived with her mother who worked day and night to make ends meet, it would be a big waste to make something that you have no idea if it will actually work out.
So, it took me few years to get to that beautiful slice of panforte, thanks to my dear friend who happens to import things like that to Latvia (that’s why his friends love him). I ate it piece by piece, slowly letting it melt on my tongue and play around every millimeter of my mouth. I don't remember which company made it, but I did not care – I had it and I enjoyed it!
As it turns out, this truly Italian Christmas dessert was not invented by Italians: it was something that the crusaders found in Turkey. Soldiers brought these with them on their long marches (for pretty obvious reasons – panforte is dense, fulfilling, keeps well and gives energy. Now, when we think about Turkey, we never think of panforte, sooner Turkish delights, and the only place that comes into our minds is the one and only Siena: the capital of panforte (good and bad, just to remind you).
Yes, Siena still believes that it is their invention. True or not, during the 13th century (when it was called panpepato thanks to the large amount of pepper and spices), it was a payment method for tithes or to the nuns and priests. Due to its scarred history, taste, sweetness, and the energy it gives, panforte has travelled all over the world, especially following the steps of pilgrims and also the famous Santiago road. Although it is available all year round today, there is still the tradition to enjoy it mostly during the festive season. This started few centuries ago when it became the product of aristocrats, spice sellers, rich people, and pharmacists, who gave it to each other on special occasions, such as Christmas. It wasn't a cheap gift to give since sugar, spices, and flour were expensive and hard to afford.
As it turns out that before 1879, when Queen Margherita of Savoy visited Sienna, the white sugary dusted panforte we know today was sprinkled with a layer of black pepper and there is also a story that few locals sprinkled it with black pepper, because of the port traders and used red pepper instead. Knowing that not everyone might like the that spiciness and realizing that a queen would be visiting (and obviously not being stupid at all), a local spice seller made panforte the same as before, but instead of pepper, he sprinkled it with vanilla flavored powder sugar. That’s is when the name Panforte Margherita (sweet, almonds, mild and creamy) was born. Since 2014, it has its own PGI label with flour, almonds, candied fruit, and powdered sugar and is much more preferred than the black panforte, which is covered with honey glaze topped with a pepper and spice mix. And instead of citrus peel, there’s melon inside.
Today, producers have taken a few steps forward making panforte, not only following two traditional recipes, but also creating tastes that an Italian donna from century ago would not approve of, such as fig or walnut, chocolate, and cherry panfortes as well as versions with chili (not my fave, though).
So, while we know and adore it as panforte (strong bread), it is most definitely more of a panpepata (spiced fruit cake), but sometimes the facts are better left alone, especially if talking to Italians about it. If you are willing, be prepared with few bottles of wine and lots of hand waving, discovering new aspects of a person in argument, but always leaving in peace (that is due to the wine, always). And while lots of people like to give anything that does not move as a gift on Christmas, there are some who know – one special thing is better than three that aren’t. And panforte most definitely is that one special thing.
Story and pictures: Signe Meirane
Camera: Sony Alpha 7s