Does “Panettone” really mean “Toni’s Bread”?

No, reader Lusi, it certainly doesn’t. That story is but one of the many myths that attempt to explain the origin of panettone. For those of you who’ve never heard it, the legend holds that a prince of Milan once fell in love with the daughter of a local baker, Antonio, whose business was faltering. The prince disguised himself as a baker’s apprentice and began working at the bakery where he “mysteriously” began acquiring expensive ingredients like eggs, butter and candied fruits, all of which he put into a new bread he called “Toni’s bread.” Of course it was a smash hit among the populace. The bakery was saved, the prince married the daughter and everyone lived happily ever after. Ugh.

Excuse me…stories like that give me indigestion. There are several variations. Sometimes the prince’s name is Toni, sometimes it’s the daughter, but the basic story line is usually the same.

Of course there are many others. Among them one about a dishwasher who worked in the kitchens on the estate of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and famous patron of Leonardo da Vinci (indeed it was he who commissioned da Vinci’s The Last Supper). This story follows one of the most familiar food story arcs, in which the master chef burns/drops/fails to produce his pièce de résistance. So the novice steps in, throws a few unconventional ingredients together and…voilà, the feast is saved, a star is born and a culinary tradition is founded. In the panettone version the miracle dish was of course an enriched bread, the dishwasher was Toni and, well…you can pretty much fill in the rest of the details yourself.

So far I haven’t found a panettone legend based on the ramshackle hut that the traveling nobleman/king/pope somehow happens to visit, and out of desperation the maiden accidentally creates a masterpiece made of leftovers. I’m sure it’s out there somewhere (and then obviously we’ll need one that somehow ties panettone in to the Battle of Vienna).

The real question is: how is it that these same story lines come to be so endlessly recycled? I believe it’s because the true origins of so many foods are so mind-numbingly mundane. From what I understand “panettone” means nothing more that “large bread” in Italian. A story like that certainly isn’t going to move any product out the door of your average corner bake shop. But what if you spiced things up a little? You know, treated the customer to a little razzle dazzle? I don’t suppose, Madam, that you have ever heard the story of how this extraordinary bread came to be?

Today’s know-it-all marketing consultants like to tell companies that modern consumers won’t buy products that don’t have strong narratives attached. My feeling is that bakers have been tuned into that particular aspect of human nature for centuries.

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