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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
- Aquila (Eagle)
- Bruco (Caterpillar)
- Chiocciola (Snail)
- Civetta (Little Owl)
- Drago (Dragon)
- Giraffa (Giraffe)
- Istrice (Crested Porcupine)
- Leocorno (Unicorn)
- Lupa (She-Wolf)
- Nicchio (Seashell)
- Oca (Goose)
- Onda (Wave)
- Pantera (Panther)
- Selva (Forest)
- Tartuca (Tortoise)
- Torre (Tower)
- 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: