Buon Natale! Christmas is almost here and in Italy that means a delightful selection of unique sweets. In Northern Italy every holiday season Italians line up at the local pasticerria to buy panettone, the traditional Milanese cake-like bread so loved by Italians that they are willing to stand in line when they see the tall domed boxes appear in pastry shop windows. Commonly held legends as to its origin vary but one favorite story tells of a 15th century Christmas banquet given by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. There was no dessert until a young kitchen helper named Toni baked up a sweet fruit-studded bread, thereby saving the meal and endowing the bread with its given name, panettone (bread of Toni). Descriptive and poetic yes but the realty may be less dramatic. Food historians credit the naming of this cake-like bread to the Italian word panetto meaning a small loaf of bread. Because the bread when baked increases in size to a cylindrical 12-15cm domed-shaped loaf. The Italian suffix –one (pronounced o-neh),which implies something bigger, was added changing the name to panettone.
Another Christmas food legend begins in Tuscany, in the medieval city of Siena set within a landscape of the burnt sienna of a Renaissance artist’s paint brush. A city whose piazza is breathtakingly beautiful and whose pasticerria are renown for a rich Tuscan specialty called paneforte where the flavors of fruit, honey and incensual spices collide to create a cake-like confection that dates to the 12th century. A chewy mix of fruit, nuts and spices that originally morphed from a pan pepato (spiced bread) to became a stronger verison (paneforte -strong bread). It was traditionally made by nuns from offerings brought back from the Holy Land and baked in a round pan lined with communion wafers. Now there are several versions including one named after Queen Margherita on the occasion of her visit to Siena in 1879. Lighter in color and more delicate in flavor, it is often dusted with confectioners’ sugar.
Panettone and paneforte are often wrapped in evocative boxes or paper. Unwrap and serve with either a glass of VinSanto or Prosecco for a festive holiday celebration.
Sharing stories about your experiences has always been a touchstone of our human existence. The flickering fires of primitive times lit the faces of our ancestors with excitement and anticipation as the tribal storyteller told of heroic events, dreams and desires that created a collective memory passed down from generation to generation. People found their stories interesting and they listened.
“Then why are we at times so resistant to hearing about our friend’s stories about their travels?”
People in general have a terrible habit of assuming other people’s travel experiences are not as interesting as their own. They think their trip was the best and their way of travel 5 star. An interested travel friend knowns that travel stories can be full of wonder and insight. A shared tip about a special restaurant, a hidden gallery, a little-known off the tourist-radar vineyard that can be filed away for future reference. But what if your friend’s not able to take that ski vacation in Telluride or that dream trip to Italy you’re so exciting about sharing? Should you stop talking about it? Should you not share the benefits of your experience? Should you not tell your story?
It can be frustrating when you want to tell people about your travels and nobody wants to hear. Are they envious or simply disinterested? Perhaps? But an interested travel friend begins with a good travel story. Not a bragging “here’s what I’ve done” story but a story that engages them with an insight that is unique. A good storyteller knows their audience and creates a positive attitude towards their stories, rarely allowing for negative emotions to come between them and the listener.
Interested travel friends share in the joy of each others travel experience. They listen and ask questions about their friend’s travels, look at their photos and enjoy their stories. Live vicariously through their travel adventures. Storyboard their experiences. Take note of their recommendations and learn from their mistakes. The world is an open book. Their stories may encourage you to write your own.
Every country has certain rituals and traditions that give meaning to the 1950’s classic holiday song “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. For most it probably has to do with putting up and decorating the Christmas tree. In Italy setting up il presepe is what creates that Christmas feeling. Il presepe (presepio) is the Italian Christmas crèche or nativity scene that depicts the birth of Jesus. Although many Christians outside of Italy include a manger with Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels awaiting the birth of Jesus few achieve the intricate detail of il presepe. The least of Italian presepe scenes are elaborate constructions that create a tablescape of buildings and figures while others achieve the intricacy of a museum diorama complete with running streams and flickering fires.
Presepio figure – Naples.
Across the country in churches, town squares and shop windows there are incredible scenes of the story of Bethlehem from miniature to life-size. Some were commissioned to be made by well-known sculptors and constructed with the same attention as the building of a real town or village. Often figures would appear that resembled the people in the town, a tableaux of the community in a scene from the time of Christ’s birth. Natural materials and greenery from the surrounding countryside were collected and clothes were especially made for each figure as part of a vignette to create a realistic view of that moment in time.
The idea of creating a scene in which the people could feel part of the miracle of Christmas was first imagined in the village of Greccio in 1223 when Francis of Assisi prepared a special celebration on Christmas Eve. In a natural cave near the town he prepared a straw-filled manger to create a “presepe vivente“, a real-life nativity scene with live animals and towns people dressed as Mary and Joseph.
Creating Christmas can begin with something as simple as a crumbled up brown paper bag that creates a backdrop of mountains or a paper mache landscape of Bethlehem with a blue curtain sky. Or it can be as elaborate as the palace nativity scenes of the 18th century court of King Charles III of Naples who employed famous artists to create magnificent figures with hand-blown glass eyes and costumes made of fine fabrics.
Whether a DIY tradition in the homes and villages throughout Italy or in the studios along Via San Gregorio Armeno, Naples famous Christmas Alley, it’s not Christmas in Italy until all the figures are in place and the stage is set for the Nativity.