Tuscan Panforte: the magic of spices
Christmas for me has many scents and one of them is Tuscan panforte, which, as a child, I could not wait to eat sitting at my grandparents’ table. Spices have always fascinated me and this cake, despite being typical of Siena, tells stories of distant lands and merchants who travelled for months to bring precious goods back to Europe. At the beginning it was called panmelato, then it became panpepato to reach us today with the name of panforte. Let’s start at the beginning.
The ancient history of Panforte
The name of this delicious typical Christmas cake comes from a preparation of the 10th century called panmelato; a simple focaccia made with water and flour, flavoured with honey and fruits. This cake, however, had a flaw: in the hot season it tended to go off and become sour; towards the second half of the 13th century a new spice, pepper, coming from the East, was added to the recipe and the fruits were removed thus giving life to the panpepato cake.
Aristocracy and the clergy were the main consumers of this delicacy, which they purchased from apothecaries, who had the burden and the honour to prepare the cake and handle its precious ingredients. As a matter of fact, apothecaries at that time used herbs and spices to prepare medical remedies as well as sweets, which were sold as delicious tonics.
The term panforte appeared for the first time in 1813 in a letter by Ugo Foscolo who recalled having received “panforti and several flasks of Montalcino from the kind woman Quirina Magiotti Mocenni […]”. However the panforte as we know it today was born when Queen Margherita visited Siena and a version of the cake was created without the melon puree and with a covering of icing sugar to replace the traditional black pepper. In honour of the Queen this type of panforte was called Margherita, which is now the most traditional and well-known version. At the end of the 18th century, and subsequently perfected by Giovanni Parenti, chocolate panforte was born..
Between history and legend
The legends around the origins of panforte are countless. One tells the tale of Sister Ginevra, forced into a convent due to an unrequited love. While preparing the dough for panmelato she heard the voice of her beloved Giannetto da Perugia, declared dead during the crusades. This surge of emotions made her accidentally pour an exaggerated dose of pepper and spices into the preparation, thus creating the first panforte. Another legend tells instead that Sister Berta created this very energetic cake to help the people of Siena during the siege of their city.
The sensual Tuscan panforte
One bite of panforte is a highly sensory experience. It looks apparently simple, yet perfect; soft yet firm to the touch, panforte has a strong aromatic scent but its taste is what is exalted by the warmth of cinnamon, the freshness of coriander and the balsamic touch of cloves. Each artisan panforte has its own mix of spices, but if you want to try your own version, have fun creating the perfect blend for you. In any case you will need: honey, sugar, flour, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, mace and a pinch of imagination. Final tip: Tuscan panforte is best enjoyed in company, with a good glass of Vin Santo.
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