For decades, panettoni have decorated the windows of Italian delis at Christmastime in London. At first, they offered a taste of home to Italians in the British capital, and a festive treat for Londoners in the know. But at some point in the 21st century, they became ubiquitous, although misunderstood.
Alongside the usual Christmas cakes and mince pies, a beautifully packaged newcomer arrived in the festive sections of supermarkets and bakeries. “Err, what is it?” asks the baffled recipient of a panettone in a 2015 episode of Peep Show, one of Britain’s bleakest television series. The red tin, bearing “Panettone Milano” in a stylish font, looks out of place on a doorstep in Croydon. “I dunno,” comes the reply. “You see them around.” Panettone became a staple holiday gift overnight, regardless of whether Brits really knew what to expect when they opened the box. Fewer still were aware of the centuries of tradition and innovation that brought panettone here.
Panettone is a sweet bread, enriched with butter and eggs. The main constants are a round base and a light, fluffy texture. It is common in Italy to set strict rules about who can call their product “traditional” or “artisanal,” and Milan’s Chamber of Commerce stipulates that a “typical panettone in the Milanese artisanal tradition” must consist of at least 20 percent sultanas and candied citrus fruit. In practice, only a fraction of panettoni comply with these rules.
Bakers achieve the distinctive, dome-shaped top by hanging the panettone upside down to cool, which stretches the crumb and prevents the bread from collapsing. Panettone traditionally uses pasta madre, a yeast starter, to create its characteristic lift. It makes sense, therefore, that London’s appetite for panettone has grown alongside its passion for sourdough.
“Panettone is a huge technical challenge,” says Laura Lazzaroni, a Milan-based journalist, book author, and bread consultant with a focus on specialty wheat and cereals. “It needs a long fermentation, and you really have to manage the acidity of your pasta madre.”
In the 1920s and ’30s, entrepreneurs like Angelo Motta and Gioacchino Alemagna started producing panettone industrially. Motta and Alemagna became household names, and remain influential in the Italian panettone market. They are now owned by Bauli, another Italian patisserie founded around the same time, and a big exporter of panettoni. “Industrialisation accelerated panettone’s spread across Italy,” Lazzaroni says. “It still wasn’t cheap, but it became a luxury that the masses could afford.”
Even before industrial production, there were panettone shortcuts. In 1891, the Italian cookbook author Pellegrino Artusi argued that the quicker version, made by his cook Marietta, using baking soda instead of yeast, was “much better than the Milanese-style panettone” — a comment designed to trigger outrage in Milan. Writers clearly had fun starting arguments about Italian food long before social media.
Panettone may originate in the Milanese tradition of eating enriched bread at Christmastime, but many of its ingredients come from further afield. The panettone’s candied citrus fruits are sourced from warmer southern climes. “That was something exotic that spoke to the Milanese,” says Lazzaroni.
If a taste for the unfamiliar made panettone desirable in Milan, then that same fascination has made it into a Christmas treat in London. It feels decadent to import something that is so light, and yet takes up so much space. Carrying home a kilogram of sweet, airy bread, in its ornate packaging that evokes the shopping arcades of Milan, looks and feels like an event.
Despite their consistent, iconic silhouette and signature promotion of imported ingredients, panettoni have shown themselves to be joyfully adaptable. Modern panettoni lend themselves well to local tastes and personal interpretations. This has long been the case: Master patissiers from southern Italy made panettone their own after training in the north, using ingredients from their local areas. There are now popular variants made with chocolate chips, nuts, or even kirsch cherries. The South American panetón — a culinary tradition in its own right — often includes papaya.
Both in Italy and elsewhere, panettone is on the move. Innovators like Roy Shvartzapel, a California-based baker who trained under the Italian pastry chef Iginio Massari, have spearheaded a quest for ever-fluffier panettone, with as open a crumb as possible. “I call it an andata e ritorno, a return trip,” Lazzaroni says. “Italian bakers are pushed by panettone’s international success to raise the bar on their own production.” In Italy, big-name chefs like Massimo Bottura and Niko Romito are now shaking up the panettone scene with gravity-defying air pockets and a relentless focus on high-quality ingredients.
Panettone may once have appealed to Brits because “You can’t get one on the cheap from Morrisons,” but that is no longer the case. The entire spectrum is now available to Londoners: from a £6 Morrisons version, made in Italy using Turkish sultanas, to what Selfridges rightly calls a “really big panettone,” costing £300 and weighing a staggering 8 kilos.
The vast majority of panettoni sold in London are still imported from Italy. It only seems fitting, however, that in a city with no shortage of artisanal bread and pastries, some London bakers are starting to see making panettone — “one of the grandi lievitati, the great leavened products of the Italian tradition,” in Lazzaroni’s words — as a risk worth taking.
It is too soon to call London panettone a “wave,” but there are dedicated panettone bakers making ripples in the city. Little Bread Pedlar started baking in an arch in Bermondsey’s Spa Terminus and now sells bread and pastries in stores across London. LBP started making panettone in 2015. This year, head baker Andy Davy and his team are taking orders of its classic panettone with candied orange, lemon, and rum-soaked raisins for pickup from 5 December. LBP also makes a chocolate panettone and a pandoro, panettone’s star-shaped distant cousin.
North London’s Sourdough Sophia developed out of a popular lockdown microbakery in 2021, and is gearing up for another big panettone season after last December’s success. “Chocolate orange was the best-selling flavour last year, so we thought we would do that one well rather than juggling lots of variations,” says baker Louie Platts. It has a moreish pearl sugar crust, and using dark chocolate and orange zest adapts this Milanese classic to nostalgic British tastes. Sourdough Sophia’s panettone can be ordered for U.K. shipping or in-store pickup.
Kouttone is Cem Altinsoy’s bakery, which is almost exclusively focussed on panettone. Altinsoy has been a self-confessed “panettone obsessive” since 2017, when he visited a panettone fair in Milan. “I knew making panettone was a challenge,” he says, “but I was blown away by the skill of these bakers. I filled up my suitcase with panettoni, and I knew that was it.”
Feroz Gajia, food writer and chef-owner of Bake Street in London, says that “pleasurable eating doesn’t begin to cover the abandon with which Altinsoy’s panettone is consumed. The fact that nearly a kilo of panettone can easily be eaten by two people (or a solitary glutton) in one sitting, without feeling worse for wear, is a testament to how good Altinsoy’s panettone can be.”
Altinsoy is meticulous. Brexit made sourcing high-quality candied fruit difficult, so he candies his own. The citrus shines through Altinsoy’s classic panettone, which has a texture that Gajia describes as “something akin to candy floss.” It is easy to cut, but it is hard to resist tearing off just one more strip of moist bread. This year, Altinsoy is making the traditional panettone, as well as one with milk chocolate and tonka bean, and a “Christmas special” with white chocolate and his own home-candied black currant. Kouttone takes panettone orders via direct message on Instagram.
Panettone may have existed in some form or another since the middle ages, but it has never stood still, and still has plenty of room for innovation. Bakery collabs with iconic fashion houses; massive panettone fairs; and Instagram accounts showing off open crumbs and outlandish flavours, are all sure signs that panettone is continuing to evolve, and quickly. This festive season, Londoners don’t have to have spent the last decade mastering the chemistry of sourdough to enjoy some of the best panettone available in the city today.