Forget mince pies – how Italian panettone won over the great British Christmas

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According to a representative for Eataly, the vast Italian food market in London which has sold thousands of panettone since November and 600 already this week, the best sellers have been classic, Moscato, pistachio, and chocolate panettoni flavours. 

“We’re seeing strong demand for panettones and have expanded our own brand offering in the past five years,” said Sarah Davies, seasonal bakery buyer at Waitrose. “Customers have been opting for authentic Italian flavours and our Christmas Tiramisu Panettone has been really popular this year.”

In contrast, traditional Christmas pudding seems to be on the way out. Research by market research firm Kantar found that in 2019, sales of the festive pudding were down by 16 per cent. Tesco’s 2018 Christmas report also showed a slow, steady decline for Christmas pudding, sales of which have been dropping by 1 per cent each year and its research showing less than half eat it on Christmas day, dropping to just one in five 18-35-year-olds. 

“Christmas pudding is such a marmite thing, some people love it, some people don’t,” says Nigel Wright, founder of The Panettone Store, an online shop he created last year after noticing the significant uptake of panettones by Britons in recent years. In contrast, luxury, authentic Italian brands have started to penetrate into the UK market. “A lot of people have heard of panettone, but few will have had the real thing, there have been a lot of cheap imports from Brazil, which aren’t the best experience. Then again, to be honest, flavours don’t dictate it, it’s the packaging.”

Wright points to Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Fornasetti, which have worked with Italian panettone makers to design luxury boxes and tins for their cakes. “They look beautiful, they’re such a pretty thing to give as a gift,” says Nigel Wright. “The Dolce & Gabbana ones for instance are real, traditional Sicilian panettones made with traditional ingredients in Italy, and they come in a tin inside a quality gift bag, so there’s no wrapping to do either. I think it really says quality, they’re a good gift to give someone of discerning taste.” 

Finally, there’s the question of how to eat them. While a Christmas pudding can really only be consumed one way (though whether you prefer brandy butter or cream is up to you) there are dozens of ways to enjoy panettone, thinks Davies. Cutting a slice of plain panettone and eating it like cake is not au courant, it seems.  “How people are enjoying their panettone is also evolving, whether it’s toasted with butter as part of a bread and butter pudding or even as the bread of their Christmas day sandwich.”

Still, panettone might need to watch its back, according to Masha Rener, executive chef of the well-established Italian deli and restaurant chain Lina Stores. “We have also seen another traditional Italian Christmas cake becoming more popular over the years. Pandoro (“golden bread” in Italian) from Verona, a towering, star-shaped sponge cake topped with icing sugar, is a popular alternative to Panettone as it is very light and fluffy.” Let the cake wars commence! 

Top tips for what to do with panettone

The River Cafe is a celebrity magnet in London’s Hammersmith but by spending £95 on its panettone and vin santo gift, you can replicate the ritzy atmosphere – the chefs suggest toasting thick slices in a griddle pan with unsalted butter and serving with the pudding wine.

Eataly’s senior store manager Matteo Ferrio suggests making panettone into croutons. “Classic panettone studded with candied orange and raisins makes for an excellent salad topping! Cut the panettone into small cubes and toast on a baking sheet in the oven until slightly crunchy. Add to mixed greens and dress with an extra virgin olive oil and citrus-based dressing.”

Angela Hartnett’s Cafe Murano is selling a festive feast delivered by Dishpatch in which the panettone bread and butter pudding is baked with pistachio creme anglaise and and candied pistachios, 

The writer Skye McAlpine has a recipe in A Table for Friends in which she slices a panettone into three discs and layers it with flavoured whipped cream and covers the whole thing with Italian meringue, so it resembles a Christmas cake, but is much lighter. The cream can be tailored for whatever panettone you’ve got – try citrus zest, pistachio paste or melted and cooled dark chocolate.

Nigella Lawson creates a superb leftover recipe for panettone and while she says herself it perhaps should be called “Italian toast”, it is in fact a panettone version of French toast, or as we might call it, eggy bread. Slice, dip and fry in butter.

Simply slicing and toasting a panettone is an approach many swear by. The London restaurant 26 Grains by Stoney Street has toasted panettone with whipped brown butter on its menu. Head chef Tom Cenci notes “It’s one of those dishes that encapsulates the festive season and never fails to brighten up your meal. It sits firmly on our sharing Christmas menu, and we serve it at the beginning of the meal as the bread course with browned butter. We also like to mix it up occasionally and serve it with a marmite whipped butter version – no question about love or hate here, everyone loves it!’”

Last year the superchef Jason Atherton did a lockdown cookalong in which he layered slices of panettone with segments of Terry’s Chocolate Orange, all soaked in a rich custard and baked like the world’s most opulent bread and butter pudding. It also doubles up the solution to the ‘what to do with Christmas leftovers’ problem.

The most fashionable panettones

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