Sienese Christmas Cake, aka Panforte

home of panforte

Its Christmas time and the mind wanders to fruit cake.  No?  Not so with you?  Hmm, well trust me, this one is good, after all there must be some reason that fruit cake has been around for ages.  I know some folks think that applies to Grandma’s cake, but seriously, the fruitcake or panforte from Siena, is truly a cultural tradition that has endured and for good reason.  It is simply delicious and when eaten with a side of espresso or sweet wine, it is all the more enjoyable.  The exact date of its inception is blurry but the fact that it is steeped in the culture of Siena, Italy, believed to be the city of its birth is not.

Who would not want to be on the receiving end of one of these?

Our recent trip to Siena in October found panforte prominently featured in many store windows and displays, as a person’s mind wandered towards the upcoming holidays, the displays of this tasty treat served to further prompt and focus the wandering mind.

Documents from 1205 show that panforte was a sort of currency paid to the monks and nuns of a local monastery as a tithe.

Fruit cakes galore

Panforte literally means “strong bread” because of all the spices and other ingredients which give it an assertive flavor.  This a variation on its original name of panpepato (peppered bread), due to the pepper used in the cake – as you can see from the pictures both remain popular.  Sources also claim that to the Crusaders carried panforte with them on their quests as it is a long lasting bread, and if you are held up in a siege, I can think of worse alternatives than nibbling on this confection.

Note, while it bears a few similarities to panettone, its sweet leaven brethren that hails from Milan, it is something entirely different.

What Is it Exactly?

Heavenly treats

The process of making panforte is fairly simple. Sugar is dissolved in honey along with various nuts, fruits (citron, melon, orange are all options) and spices all mixed with flour. The entire mixture is baked in a shallow pan, and the finished cake is dusted with icing sugar.  Bakers seek to outdo each other and variations exist with the addition of such ingredients as chocolate or marzipan.  In the 1820s the Parenti bakery introduced a chocolate laced variety is still sold, but now the most popular varieties are Panforte Nero and Panforte Margherita. Panforte nero is dark with an underlying bitter taste from the addition of bitter almonds. Panforte Margherita is light colored and delicate, with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.  Enrico Righi developed the recipe in 1879 and first offered it to Queen Margerita, its namesake, who visited annually with King Umberto to see the Palio ( a magnificent horse race as seen from the video below).

Each shop seems to produce their own version of this tasty treat, and each was packaged in its own distinct wrapping.

Neighborhood of the She Wolf (Lupa)

In Siena, some claim a true panforte should properly contain seventeen different ingredients, one for each Contrade (singular  is Contrada) within the city walls.

One legend has it that it was invented in the 1200’s by Suor Leta, a nun, who discovered the residual mess of sugar, spices and almonds at the bottom of a storage cabinet – mice had chewed holes in the storage sacks, and the precious ingredients were hopelessly mixed. Like any creative cook, she decided to make the best of what was presented to her and so she combined it in a pot on the fire.  The heat from the flames worked their magic and the sugar caramelized, the spices amalgamated, and to keep it all from sticking to the pan she stirred in some honey, some almonds and put the resulting mixture into the oven to set.  The results were thought to be heaven sent.

The Campo - center of action in Siena

Others say panforte dates much farther back, to Jesus, when an orphan who followed the comet to Baby Jesus and tried to give him the crust of bread he had in his pocket.  Joseph, Jesus’s father took the crust, gave a crumb to one of the birds in the rafters overhead, and returned the rest to the boy, whose eyes filled with tears thinking his gift was too poor.  He returned home to the hovel he shared with his grandmother and discovered to his amazement his parents, his mother radiant and his father in burnished armor, while the table was decked for a feast, with sumptuous platters arranged around an exquisite pastry made with almonds, honey and candied fruit.

So now you might reasonably ask, what’s a contrada?

Contrade are essentially neighborhoods in a Italian city, (cantrada is the singular version) with the most famous being in, you guessed it Siena.  Siena has 17, (although originally it had 59) and they each have their own mascot and flag.  They are famous for their participation in that most famous of horse races, the Sienese Palio which is held twice a year on the Campo.  Essentially, they each had their own governing bodies, armies to fight the Florentine, and if, horror of horrors a couple from different contrada wanted to marry they had to seek permission, this was taking Westside Story or Romeo and Juliet to a new level.

Siena contrade

The Tortoise, Tartuca

  1. Aquila (Eagle)
  2. Bruco (Caterpillar)
  3. Chiocciola (Snail)
  4. Civetta (Little Owl)
  5. Drago (Dragon)
  6. Giraffa (Giraffe)
  7. Istrice (Crested Porcupine)
  8. Leocorno (Unicorn)
  9. Lupa (She-Wolf)
  10. Nicchio (Seashell)
  11. Oca (Goose)
  12. Onda (Wave)
  13. Pantera (Panther)
  14. Selva (Forest)
  15. Tartuca (Tortoise)
  16. Torre (Tower)
  17. Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram)

Once you realized that the symbols were everywhere, you were soon on the lookout for statues, adornments on buildings, fountains, all in the shape of the symbols of each contrada, to let you know when you had passed into the next neighborhood.

Some panforte recipe ideas:

so tasty you want to sing its praises from the rooftops

Update me when site is updated

26 comments for “Sienese Christmas Cake, aka Panforte

  1. December 12, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    Italy is so great I love it I went to Siena and had a very good time there !!pierre
    pierre recently posted..Bouchons au limoncello- chantilly vanillée et kumquats confits

  2. December 12, 2010 at 5:02 PM

    This sounds like quite a special cake. I’ve always enjoyed breads that have candied fruit integrated into the dough. I like the various legends of how it was derived.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Better Than Mashed Potatoes Celery Root Purée

  3. December 12, 2010 at 6:33 PM

    Hi, Louann. I enjoyed learning more about panforte (which I had just last week) and more about Siena. We’d visited the city three trips ago to Italy, in 2003, and it is really charming.

    I was glad to read about the chocolate version, as I was sure I had tried some of that variant while visiting Italy.



  4. December 12, 2010 at 7:40 PM

    The only fruitcake I’ve had was at the weddings…in Singapore, they always gave out these little fruitcakes at weddings, and they were truly nasty. It turned me off fruitcake since. I wanna try panforte to block out the bad memories!

  5. December 12, 2010 at 9:52 PM

    I would love to try panforte, it will have to be in Siena though! I want to experience it with the scenery around me like your photos!
    Very interesting read; I vote for the nun’s creation version.
    tasteofbeirut recently posted..Rice paste with rosewater and ashtashmayseh

  6. December 13, 2010 at 8:28 AM

    I’ve never had panforte, but you’ve made me very, very curious!
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Summer Salad Turned Into Anytime Anything Salsa

  7. December 13, 2010 at 1:01 PM

    Love the history of recipes and how they came to be (and love,love,love Siena).I make a panforte every Christmas – a little bit goes a long way – they are enticingly rich! Love reading this post and how many different panfortes abound!
    Claudia recently posted..An Italian Feast for Father Winter

  8. December 13, 2010 at 3:27 PM

    I discovered panforte for the first time last year in Siena (which is one of my favorite Italian areas to visit). We were there during the celebration dinner (also held in the Campo) for the horse/contrada that had won Palio. Love the history of the place and the fierce and friendly rivalries of the contrada. Did you come across any ricciarelli? (an almond paste cookie from Siena popular around christmas time)
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..Cinnamon Mexican Wedding Cakes

  9. OysterCulture
    December 13, 2010 at 6:54 PM

    Pierre – I’m of the mind you cannot not have a good time in Siena.

    Christine – That panforte was just delicious and I loved all the varieties

    Dan – Eating that chocolate panforte reinforced my opinion that most everything is better with chocolate.

    Sophia – Run to the nearest Italian market to save yourself, there is some truly good fruitcake out there that has your name on it.

    Taste of Beirut – I agree, something about the scenery that added to the experience.

    Andrea – I hope so, and I hope you can find some to satisfy your curiosity.

    Claudia – Oh, I bet you make a delicious version.

    Gastro – Oh, I bet that dinner was incredible, I’d love to attend Palio in person and have heard wonderful things about the celebratory meals. I did try some ricciarelli and a few other goodies. As far as I am concerned almond paste is king!

  10. December 13, 2010 at 6:55 PM

    I’ve never tried panforte but would love to try it someday soon!
    Azita recently posted..Naan Berenji – Persian Rice Flour Cookies

  11. December 13, 2010 at 10:29 PM

    I was in Siena years ago around the first of the year. There were lines at all the bakeries and people were all buying the very same thing — panforte. It was a treat to be able to try a confection with such a history and with such importance to that city.
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..A Daring Pairing with Clam Udon

  12. December 14, 2010 at 7:42 AM

    I love panforte, my mom always gets it for us during the holiday season. Great to learn the history of it. I would love to make a homemade version sometime or even better to have it in Siena 🙂

  13. December 14, 2010 at 10:08 AM

    Hi there, I came over here from Lisa Is Cooking’s blog, I’ve seen you on others as well so I thought it was time to come check you out. I look forward to reading more of your blog. I would love to go to Siena, Italy is a beautiful place.

  14. Lazaro
    December 14, 2010 at 11:02 AM

    What a beautifully written and researched article. The Panforte sounds fantastic, would love to give it a try.

  15. December 14, 2010 at 1:27 PM

    Great pictures…I still remember when I was in Sienna, but did not had a chance to try panforte…and I am sure that I will like it since I love panettone 🙂

  16. December 14, 2010 at 8:31 PM

    With all that description of the Panforte, you don’t need to convince me to try it!

    Fruity cakes are always welcome 🙂

    Very sweet and nice article!


    Gera@SweetsFoodsBlog recently posted..4 Reasons Food Tattoos Are So Popular

  17. December 15, 2010 at 4:07 AM

    I love panforte. I only made it once, home made,…a long time ago! I also love Italy & Siena of course!!

    Thanks for all of the lovely info on Panforte. Well appreciated! Cool pictures too!

    Kisses from Brussels to you!
    Sophie recently posted..Sophies gluten free buckwheat flakes porridge with apple juice &amp cinnamon apples with caramelised coconut blossom sugar

  18. December 16, 2010 at 9:10 AM

    I’ve heard of panforte but didn’t know they were related to fruit cake.

    And you’re right, fruit cake doesn’t enter my mind yet it manages to make it to my office this time of the year and have a problem “disposing” them. Heaven knows how much I tried to like this Xmas cake! It truly makes me wonder if anybody actually eats these things. Those dried fruits are quite expensive here, so I truly hope somebody actually enjoys eating these expensive (over here in the PH, anyway), undelicious (to me) cakes.

    In spite of all I’ve said above, I enjoyed reading this post. 🙂
    The Kitchen Masochist recently posted..Loomi Luvin

  19. December 16, 2010 at 10:52 AM

    A little slice of panforte and a cup of espresso sounds perfect. I’d love to try making panforte one of these days too!
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Lucinda Scala Quinn- What Are You Reading

  20. OysterCulture
    December 16, 2010 at 7:24 PM

    Azita – I hope you get to, a very tasty treat.

    Carolyn – And to be able to try it in the city in which it is made, lucky you!

    5 Star – I can only imagine what masterpiece you’ll develop.

    Emily – Thanks for stopping by!

    Lazaro – Thanks, high praise coming from you!

    Juliana – Now you just have an excuse to go back

    Gera – Thanks! Definitely recommend a sample

    Sophie – Thank you!

    KM – There are certain foods out there that people seem to make because they’ve always made them and not because they are eaten. I can think of a few others that fall under this category.

    Lisa is Cooking – I agree, its also very good with a little glass of vin santo – just enough to be naughty as my grandmother would say. =)

  21. December 16, 2010 at 9:21 PM

    Last year I was purchasing a panettone and a elder gentleman said that I should try a panforte, I simply said thanks and walked away. I never gave it much thought until I read your post, I would love to try this fruit cake, I can imagine the chocolate version is divine, oh yes with espresso..heavenly

    sweetlife recently posted..Avocado Pomegranate Tostadas

  22. December 20, 2010 at 9:27 PM

    There goes my next baking challenge! Thanks for sharing. I always enjoy learning about the cultures and stories behind foods and you are just really good at telling those stories.
    Kitchen M recently posted..Crazy Nuts

  23. December 23, 2010 at 6:14 AM

    How interesting. My first question was going to be – is it like panettone – and then I saw my answer. You have a way of uncovering the coolest stuff when you travel and then sharing it with us. Panettone is huge in Brazil which is actually the first place I tried it. Now I have to set out to try Panforte!
    Lori recently posted..Smoky Turkey and Kale Soup

  24. December 28, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    I always assumed paneforte and pannetone were the same so thanks for the enlightenment!
    Crystal recently posted..A belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

  25. OysterCulture
    December 28, 2010 at 4:05 PM

    Sweetlife – Ah, now you just have to go back and check out the panforte – you will not be disappointed.

    Kitchen M – Sweet! I volunteer to e a taster.

    Lori – You definitely need to at least sample.

    Crystal – My pleasure.

  26. Michael Copeland
    November 22, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    Where can I purchase Panforte in Boston. MA ?

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