Although Christmas is essentially a religious holiday, it is also an opportunity for families to gather, share a meal, and pass on traditions from one generation to the next, strengthening the ties between young and old. In Italy, many small towns were left in the 1960s by young generations, who moved north looking for better jobs and opportunities thanks to the industrial economic boom, so today the holidays are when they return and people come together, sit down at the table, create memories and pass on stories, anecdotes, knowledge, and recipes.
A big family meal on Christmas Eve is followed by a generous lunch on Christmas Day. Sweets and treats play big roles on both occasions, with none as sweet and delicious as panforte, a sort of dense, flourless, and heavily spiced fruitcake that's a heavenly mixture of honey, spices, candied fruit, and almonds whose origin stretches back into the mists of time. The name literally means "strong bread" and the recipe derives from an older version, named panpepato, which translates as "peppered" (spiced) bread, though neither version traditionally contains any flour.
Most say panforte has medieval origins, and that it was invented in the 1200s by a novitiate nun, Suor Leta. According to the legend, she discovered a mound of sugar, spices, and almonds at the bottom of the spice cabinet—mice had chewed holes in the bags, and the precious offerings made by pilgrims returning from the Holy Land were hopelessly mixed. But instead of wasting the food the nun cooked everything on the fire, adding honey to prevent the mixture from sticking to the pot. As the tale is told, the devil, shaped like a black cat, talked to the nun, asking her to taste the mixture, and she dumped the hot concoction on the cat to make it go away. The heavenly aroma had overcome the devil's stench, and what was left in the pot was enough to taste the mixture and realize what a delicious recipe she had come up with.
Others say panforte has its origins in the time of Jesus's birth: An orphan who followed the comet leading to the nativity scene wanted to offer the messiah a crust of bread he had in his pocket. Joseph took it, gave a crumb to one of the birds whose nest was in the rafters overhead and returned the rest to the boy, who assumed his gift was too poor and cried at the thought. But a voice thanked him, and when he returned home to the hovel he shared with his grandmother he found his parents, his mother radiant and his father in burnished armor, while the table was decked for a feast, with sumptuous platters arranged around an exquisite pastry made with almonds, honey, and candied fruit.
And although there is no certainty on who invented it, the stories of its origin speak to the magic that surrounds it. Over the centuries, there have been many variations, as new ingredients were discovered or became available. In the 1820s, the Pasticceria Parenti in Rome introduced a chocolate variety that was immensely popular for a while, but the most popular varieties nowadays are panforte nero and panforte Margherita. The first is dark and has a complex taste conferred by bitter almonds, while the latter is light-colored and much more delicate, with a dusting of confectioner's sugar, named after Queen Margherita, who came to see Siena's famous Palio horse races every year.
Panforte is available in several sizes, the most common of which is about 1/2-inch thick and 9 inches across; thicker varieties are proudly displayed in the windows of Siena's bars and pastry shops, and you can but it by weight.
Italian Christmas Traditions
One of the highlights of holiday reunions is, of course, the Christmas dinner, or cenone (big dinner), which varies greatly from place to place, but is traditionally fish and seafood, with plenty of pasta and vegetable dishes. It lacks heavy meats and pork, and features many vegetarian and dairy-based dishes. Equally important is the Christmas Day lunch, with many meat-based, vegetable, and pasta dishes, alongside cheese and fruit plates, bread, and salads. And in many regions in Italy, panforte makes an appearance to sweeten the family gatherings, where cooking together and sharing recipes is key to creating strong and lasting family bonds.