Getting into heaven may not be as exciting as dipping your fingers into an artisan panettone. When the server spies it and can compare, I promise to comment on it via Ouija board (as long as I don’t have to go down to hell). Spending eternity in the moist guts of this famed Lombard sweet doesn’t seem like a bad plan at all. Spaniards have had little trouble making room for it in our Christmas diet, and we have received the panettone with more enthusiasm than the son who returns home for Christmas from the happy nougat advertisement. Because panettone has come to stay -like telecommuting-, no matter how much some have classified it as an invasive species and have become entangled in I don’t know what paranoia about the danger of extinction of national Christmas classics like the roscón de Reyes.
For Nuño García, a pastry and bakery consultant who will soon open a bakery in Madrid, no one has come to take anyone’s job away. “The panettone is already immovable, but it will not replace the roscón de Reyes or other sweets. The croissant is not ours either, it is everywhere and nothing happens. As long as the panettone is of quality, I do not see any problem, “he says. On the other hand, Tonatiuh Cortés, conductor of Cloudstreet Bakery, winner of the best artisan panettone in Spain of 2019 and in the top 10 of the Coppa del Mondo del Panettone 2021, also gives a Diazepan to the exalted. “We could say that the roscón is not from anywhere, if we were very strict. The panettone does not have to fight with other Spanish sweets. You don’t have to be afraid of that ”, he assures.
But this is not about cultural appropriation. I have contacted both oven and sourdough senseis to determine why an artisan panettone is so much more expensive than an industrial one. Why a quality kilo panettone can go up to 35-40 euros in a big city, and why a supermarket cost 10. When I finish chatting with them, I not only understand the pecuniary abyss, I also discover the abyss of flavors aromas and textures that is between both worlds.
Mother, what dough
To surf so many abysses you have to start at the base, because in its most elemental state an artisan panettone is built exclusively with sourdough, without accelerators, pure natural fermentation. That translates into time, and time is money. Time is paid. “It is a luxury item, as is a loaf of sourdough bread at six euros. In any case, in the case of quality panettone, the high price is more than justified, since the production process is very long. Also, when you start, you can’t stop, ”says Nuño, who learned the art of panettonil from Rafel Aguilera de Cal Jan.
It is not an elaboration that is solved in an afternoon, it is rather a triathlon of several days. “The artisan panettone that respects time takes about 72 hours from when you start to feed the sourdough until you bag it. Going through many points where everything can go to hell: an error in the sourdough, the kneading, the PH control, the temperature… ”, says Tonatiuh.
The connection of the artisans with the sourdough is so deep, there is so much care involved, that they seem to speak of a child. Tonatiuh goes further: “It is worse than caring for a child, because the child will one day return that affection in the form of love, and the panettone will not. It is an exercise of a lot of self-discipline and self-demand. You have to refresh the sourdough every three to four hours, depending on the recipe. Hydration also varies depending on the recipe. You have to make calculations to reach the end of the kneading at the desired temperature and PH … That is why those of us who make panettone are freaks: this is torture ”, he assures.
I can attest to this, because I have to move the time of the interview a couple of times because first things first, and Tonatiuh must attend to the crowd when she feels like it. A very tough long-distance race in which you sleep less than in Spook’s parking lot. “Think that people get up at three or four in the morning, it depends on how you put it. You cannot leave the sourdough alone. You have to feed it so that it does not acidify. They are hours and hours of work, with the machinery running. And on top of that, you have to take care of the sourdough all year round. All this has to be paid for ”, adds Nuño.
As if that were not enough, panettone seeks moisture and a very characteristic silky texture: the industry manages to imitate them with greater or lesser success using artificial products, while in a serious bakery both peaks are crowned without dopping. In the end, it shows. “Texture is perhaps what the industry has managed to emulate best, but when you put that panettone in your mouth it has nothing to do with it. The flours are not noble, they use artificial flavors and of course you will notice that this is not 100% sourdough. Organoleptically they have nothing to do with it ”, Nuño sentenced.
The feast of ingredients
Along with the time, the quality of the ingredients must also be considered as an enchanting element. It may be a truism, but in architecture as delicate as that of artisan panettone, a low-quality ingredient can sound like a Leonardo Dantés rooster at the Royal Opera House. And the components of the good panettone are not on sale, precisely.
“The special flour to make panettone is more expensive. It has a lot of butter -which has to be of quality-, a lot of egg yolk. It has real honey and vanilla. Candied fruit and quality chocolate aren’t cheap to say the least. Only in raw material, a half-kilo panettone can cost you 8 euros. And one kilo is about 12-13 euros, I insist: only in raw material. It is justified that for a half kilo you pay between 20-22 euros and, for one kilo, between 30-35 euros ”, says Nuño.
The role of the ingredients is decisive. An artificial vanilla, a lifeless orange or a mediocre butter can have a devastating effect on the perfume, one of the keys to the sex appeal of this Italian mushroom-shaped sweet. “The first thing you notice in an industrial panettone is vanilla, almost none use natural vanilla, it is an extract and it sings a lot. It is a very artificial aroma, like a chemical perfume and the aromas are fundamental: in our panettone you distinguish natural orange, organic vanilla, Normandy butter… ”, says Tonatiuh.
The whims of panettone
Weather. Quality ingredients. Absolute dedication. What are we missing? An intangible that also costs money and is impossible to find in industrial panettones. Intuition, ‘know how’, mastery. Because behind an artisan panettone there is an obsession, an almost shamanic apprenticeship, Soviet discipline, loss of sanity and sleep …, a master in eternal learning. “There is a mastery of the technique. I see it as a Bach cantata: it has a lot of readings. You can focus on the text, on the melody, on the harmony, and you never stop learning. It’s the same with panettone. You like it without knowing why and when you go inside you start to distinguish if the fruit is rich, if the amount of butter is adequate, if the sourdough is noticeable, the texture … You never stop reading it ”, says Tonatiuh.
In addition, in all phases of its development, the separation between success and failure is fine as cigarette paper. The kneading and baking are delicate. You have to control both the temperature and the PH. Even hanging the pieces is a tricky job. “You have to master it. It is such a complex process that in a normal workshop, with more elaborations, sometimes something goes wrong and it doesn’t work out at all. In my view, ‘know how’ is what pays the most, not just anyone can make a good panettone: there is a lot of work and learning behind it, and that has to be paid for ”, says Nuño.
In fact, artisan panettone is so whimsical and treacherous that it forces you to be vigilant even when you’ve finished it, when you think the match is in the trash minutes. “Its elaboration is so complex that you don’t rest until three days after bagging it. It is then that you realize if it is good or not. By the way, even at the time of bagging, you can go wrong. The bags have to be disinfected, you have to bag them without leaving air inside and without touching anything with your hands, because mold can develop ”, says Tonatiuh.
Despite the doggies they must overcome around this time, panettone artisans are driven by an inordinate love for this bun / brioche / call it like you want. “The vast majority, myself included, knew panettone in its industrial aspect, which came from Italy. But once you step into the craftsman, you don’t come back. I see it as with natural wines, when you taste it you see that they are alive and each one has its own personality. It is very difficult for you to buy conventional wine later, ”says Tonatiuh, using a wine simile that makes one want to raise the glass and sing to the artisan panettone that of:“ Come back home come back for Christmas ”.