What makes a great Christmas meal? Is it the selection of meat that goes all the way to being the centrepiece item, is it the sides or is it something more? Over the festive period, we all know how easy it is to indulge to then come to the big day expecting the main meal to astound us all; in most cases, it truly does.
But how do the Italians, the nation which treats food as highly as religion go about doing their Christmas meal? Chester based Italian kitchen company, Stefano De Blasio Kitchens & Interiors knows a thing or two about the true Italian Christmas experience. As he put it, “I’m Italian, and I’ve spent more time in kitchens over the last 40 years than I can remember!”
“Italians do everything different” said Stefano at a recent cooking demonstration in his showroom. “Christmas is no different. The biggest meal is on Christmas eve, which can be 20+ courses, the Christmas meal starts off as leftovers from the previous night, then fresh lasagna or pasta in the oven is the masterpiece and then onto the sweet things.”
The one thing that is at every Italians Christmas dinner is panettone! I say every Italian house because most households will even give them as gifts, and you don’t just have two varieties to choose from, there are loads.”
Panettone at Christmas is as synonymous with Easter eggs at Easter or an Aperol Spritz in the summer, especially this summer. There are many legends surrounding the speciality sweet loaf, one in particular involves even the famous renaissance artist, Leonardo Da Vinci.
The story behind Panettone
It’s first written acknowledgement comes in the fifteenth century when the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (Ludovico il Moro) and his wife Beatrice played cupid for a young aristocrat’s son, called Ughetto. In an act of unbridled attention seeking, Ughetto, who was ‘madly in love with a patissier’s beautiful daughter Aldagisa decided to become a baker for a day and create a rich, sweet bread in honour of her.’
Apparently, with the help of Leonardo Da Vinci and other noblemen, Ludovico and his wife managed to convince Ughetto’s father to allow his son to date the young lady of non-noble blood.
Italy is a very regional nation when it comes to food, but this is one dish, like it’s cousin of nature, the Pandoro that is keenly accepted at meals in Italy.” Stefano continued. “You have the shop bought varieties, the mass produced flavours which come even as confectionary gifts that include bottles of prosecco and even more interestingly, tiny ones that are designed to hang from Christmas trees – that’s a foreign influence because in Italy, it’s only a recent thing to have Christmas trees in the home.”
How to find the perfect panettone
You can spend a lot of money on panettone, or you could go budget, but does that make any difference to taste? Stefano thinks not (in some cases), “I had a brilliant panettone from Aldi the other day, £2.99 and it was delicious. Soft, just the right amount of sweetness and the top just had that little bit of crunch. Whereas I had a slice from another supermarket (I won’t say who) which cost me £7.99, the quality wasn’t there.”
So what should you look for when it comes to having a real, Italian, special panettone? “Quality is everything. You won’t really know until you’ve opened the box, but if you can see it beforehand possibly on a tasting stall, you want softness like a brioche, a little sweetness and the trick my mum taught me, look for air pockets to the centre of the panettone, that means it’s risen and baked well!”