What is the story about Panettone?

How did Panettone become one of Italy’s most famous breads?

Panettone, literally ‘large loaf cake’, comes from the Italian word ‘panetto’, which means small loaf cake.

In 1495 there was a huge banquet given by the Duke of Milan. The cooks were slaving away in the kitchens, creating a meal that would be fitting for the Duke, who was a very powerful fitgure of the time. Then disaster struck! The desert got burnt!

There was a young cook working in the kitchens at the time, called Toni and he saved the day, offering the bread he had made - a right brioche bread, filled with raisins and candied fruit - and with great trepidation, the servants took this bread up to the Duke and his party.

The Duke loved it and so, “Pane di Toni” was born!

Palazzo Sforza, Milan

Another legend on the origins of panettone is typically Italian - Milanese baker, Toni, had fallen in love with a beautiful woman, who walked past his bakery every day, but sadly she never noticed him. To lure her inside his bakery, and win her affections, Toni created a beautiful bread with a vanilla perfume, which he called “Pan di Toni”

Bringing the two themes together gives us a third legend - and perhaps my favourite.

There was a young man called Ughetto degli Atellani, who was very rich and he lived in Milan in 1494. He was very much in love with a young woman called Adalgisa, who came from a poor family. In fact, her father worked in the kitchens of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. Ughetto proposed to Adalgisa, but the Duke would sanction the marriage because of the difference in their class.

So, Ughetto devised a plan. Although Atellani’s father was very poor, he was also a talented cook and was famous for his work and Ughetto decided to imitate him and invent a new type of bread to not only wow his future bride, but to gain the approval of the Duke.

He played around with new ingredients that hadn’t been used together before and the resulting bread was a huge success, impressing Atellani and the Duke, who for some strange reason then decided they could marry. The bread was named after Atellani’s father Toni ……..

In 1821 Panettone became a symbol of liberty,

with the Italian flag created by the colours of the red cherries, green citrus and the white of the bread - these fruits replacing the traditional raisins and other dried fruits.

The origins of Panettone are fiercely guarded by the Italians and rightly so. As with all things this wonderful, fakes and copies have been developed all over the world. An article in the Smithsonian magazine A Culinary History of Panettone states -

"Panettone—the world-famous, yeast-leavened cake, whose sales reach their peak during the weeks before Christmas—had been forced into “unfair competition,” cried Bauli, with inferior knock-offs baked abroad. Italy produces more than 7,100 tons of panettone each year—about ten percent of which is sold internationally. It’s a source of national pride, and, since 2005, had been one of over a hundred foods subject to a formal authentication process under Italian law. Within Italy, panettone has been considered a homegrown, Lombard specialty since the 19th century, when cookbooks, such as Giovanni Felice Luraschi’s 1853 Nuovo cuoco milanese economico, placed the roots of the original recipe firmly in the area around Milan. (The pastry was first mentioned in a manuscript from the 1470s, written by a preceptor in Milan’s House of Sforza.)"

And in modern times?

In the 1900’s two Italian bakers in Milan decided that Panettone had a huge potential for sales. They wanted to be able to sell it all over Italy, not just in Milan.

One, Angelo Motta, who is thought to be the true inventor of the modern Panettone, developed the special tall shape we now think of, by letting the bread rise 3 times for a whole 24 period.

The other, Gioacchino Alemagna, also discovered this method, but created his own brand in a copycat kind of way. This led to the ‘Panettone war’, but is the reason it is so famous all over the world. Immigrants took it to places like Argentina and Brazil and it is just as famous there, but they use candied papaya instead of the traditional filling.

Why not try and make it at home?

Here are my three favourite recipes -


PANETTONE (Italian Christmas bread: traditional recipe)


Want to buy the authentic stuff?

Italian Grazia magazine has the low down on all the best brands and where to find them
Click here to see the article and buy your Panettone
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