Food History

The Cross-Continental History of Panettone

How South America became the biggest manufacturer of an Italian Christmas treat.

December 24, 2019
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The New York City drugstore at Christmas is flush with panettone. Packed in ingenious trapezoidal boxes, they sit next to the Kit Kats and lighters. Their packaging reads “D’Onofrio” and “Bauducco,” names that seem like they might hail from Milanese streets or Roman marketplaces. In fact, the panettone you might have brought home from your local Duane Reade probably does come from afar––but not from Italy. No, more likely it was made in Brazil or Peru, today home to the largest manufacturers of this holiday treat.

So how did this Italian delicacy make its way from thirteenth century Lombardy to twenty-first century South America? And what does it mean for panettone that a new generation of American consumers are being exposed to a mass-produced Brazilian or Peruvian product rather than an artisan loaf shipped from Italy?

To understand today’s multifarious panettone, we need to go all the way back to Milan in 1470. “The first mention of the bread comes from a manuscript written by a teacher who worked for the House of Sforza, a powerful family who ruled the Lombard capital for over a hundred years,” Stanislao Porzio, who wrote a 2007 book on panettone, explained to me via email. But this version of panettone barely resembles what we eat today. “It was a wheat bread, because the wheat was a rich ingredient at that time,” Porzio continued. The recipe hadn’t yet incorporated the yeast, eggs, and butter that make modern panettone simultaneously rich and light.

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It’s not until the nineteenth century that panettone starts to evolve into what we know today; an 1839 Milanese-Italian dictionary describes it as “a kind of bread garnished with butter, eggs, sugar and raisins or sultanas.” According to Porzio, panettone begins to travel then, too, in the squared-off cardboard containers called hat boxes. But future improvements still remain: as producers start to enrich their dough more and more, they wrap the loaves in paper collars that encourage the richer dough to rise as it bakes rather than spread; and in 1930, Milanese baker Angelo Motta becomes the first to mass-produce panettone after outfitting his bakery with a conveyor belt.

But panettone innovations weren’t confined to Milan. In the late 1800s, after the unification of Italy upended feudal land ownership, Italian migration to the Americas began in earnest. Between 1880 and 1900, Italian immigrants flooded South America, first to Argentina and then to Brazil, bringing culinary traditions with them. There, panettone took hold, picking up some distinctly local inflections––dried papaya rather than citron in Peru, or the chocolate chips that make a Brazilian “chocotone.”

D’Onofrio, a Peruvian confectionary brand, had been founded in Lima in 1859, twenty years before the wave of Italian immigration to Peru picked up steam. As the Italian population of the country grew, so did the demand for panettone. So they started producing it, and remain one of the most popular Peruvian panettone retailers to this day. Like milanesas or pizza, originally Italian foods that have been adopted in both Argentina and Brazil, panettone became part of South American cuisine. Not just a Christmas bread anymore, it’s also eaten on Peru’s July Independence Day, a sign of its total integration into Peruvian culture.

There may be no better testament to panettone’s ubiquity in South America than its tangential presence in both political victory and scandal centuries after it first arrived there. In 2002, Brazil elected social democrat Luis Inácio Lula da Silva president. The online campaign store of Da Silva’s Workers’ Party flooded with orders for party merchandise, and soon party members were making plans to sell Workers’ Party–branded loaves of panettone at Christmastime.

Of course, panettone has served not only as the spoils of victory but also the scapegoat of corruption. In 2009, José Roberto Arruda, governor of Brazil’s capital, was caught on video accepting 50,000 reals in cash, according to The Times. He claimed innocence––and that he’d used the money to buy loaves of panettone for poor families, issuing official tenders for 120,000 panettone the same day the news of his corruption broke. (One unflattering headline: “Trousered cash ‘was to pay for cake.’”) The public didn’t buy it; protestors flooded the state parliament, brandishing panettone.

Panettone’s popularity in South America has fueled the rise of two of the largest contemporary panettone manufacturers: D’Onofrio and Bauducco, both founded in South American by Italian immigrants (Antonio D’Onofrio in Peru and Carlo Bauducco in Brazil, respectively). These companies are now major producers and exporters of panettone not just in South America but across the world (Bauducco exports to 50 countries), baking the loaves you’ll probably find in your local grocery store.

And these huge producers have created a kind of panettone specific to South America, studded with papaya or chocolate. Unlike its Italian predecessors, whose lineage traces back to the dukes of Milan, or the recent spate of artisan American-made panettone that can go for 60 dollars a loaf, South American panettone has spread worldwide because it is cheap and readily available.

Italian producers, for their part, seem slightly stressed out at the ubiquity of South American panettone. In 2004, the city of Milan applied to register panettone under European Union laws on food copyright, requiring certain qualities to designate an official panettone. The resulting law, D.M. 22-07-2005, requires that panettone contain certain percentages of eggs, butter, and dried fruit, a way to make the club of panettone that much more exclusive. At the time, Italy’s agriculture minister Paolo de Castro said that the law was expressly formulated to protect Italian panettone producers from increasing competition from South American brands.

But Bread & Salt baker Rick Easton, who’s been making artisanal panettone in the United States for several years, points out that industrial panettone isn’t just from South America. Panettone started as a specifically Milanese treat, but then spread throughout Italy when it could be made at a larger scale. He sees a similar phenomenon at work in the U.S. Industrial panettone creates “an increased market presence,” he explained to me over the phone.

Easton is ambivalent about the new wave of panettone entering American stores. “It’s a plus and a negative,” he says. On one hand, the easier it is to get a loaf of panettone, the more people know what panettone is in the first place. But on the other, when you can buy a panettone for six dollars at the drugstore, are you really going to be willing to pay five or ten times that for an artisanal product? Easton’s panettone is influenced by Italian bakers who adhere to rigid and extremely high standards for their ingredients and production; “They only use the yolks from these very specific eggs,” he explains. And his panettone is priced accordingly; you’re paying for a loaf that takes three days to make and contains real vanilla and cultured butter.

Of course, Easton’s loaves and the ones you see in the drugstore are part of the same time-honored tradition of panettone, a bread that comes yeasted and buttered, filled with raisins or papaya or chocolate, that hops oceans and traverses continents, bakes in kitchens and in factories, travels in bags and hat boxes. This season, you might eat Italian panettone wrapped in paper and twine, or American panettone shipped from Virginia, or Brazilian panettone you bought when you were picking up shampoo and cough drops on the way home from work. Either way, you’ll be eating the result of 700 years’ innovation and migration. Luckily, panettone was made to travel.

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C. Goddu

Written by: C. Goddu