I've always thought about panettone at this time of the year, even back before you could find the little Italian Christmas loaves everywhere in America. And I'm reposting this essay -- about the ritual of going to buy a panettone in Florence -- from a few years back:
I opened the panettone.
I wasn't going to. I bought it last week at the Whole Foods store on Ponce in Atlanta with the idea of bringing it somewhere as a special treat.
But then I thought, well, I would like a special treat. Right here, right now.
So I opened it, and still mulling over a long-awaited email I had received from a British friend this morning, I had a flashback to the days when I lived in Florence and I would buy a panettone to bring for Christmas dinner.
(Yes, a flashback to Florence -- what do you expect? Chalk it up to my living in Florence just after college. I think those early years of adulthood, no matter where you spend them, remain disproportionately impressed upon the brain, perhaps because it's then that we launch our own independent lives, with their own rhythms and routines, separate from Mommy and Daddy).
Specifically, I remembered going to order a homemade, artigianale panettone from a bakery on Borgo San Iacopo to bring to my British friend's family in Luxembourg.
They had invited me to spend Christmas with them that first year that I lived in Florence, and as I counted down the days until I boarded the overnight train from Santa Maria Novella station, I made the rounds of neighborhood stores to pick up treats and gifts.
I remember walking over to the bakery along the narrow, cobblestone streets on the other side of the Arno from the Duomo, and pausing a moment in front of the glass storefront.
You know the type -- either from movies or real-life.
It had a large front window through which you could see a display case full of Christmas delicacies and everyday pastries, I believe the baker had stuck his head out of the kitchen for a moment to share a laugh with the girl behind the counter, and condensation had formed on the window from the heat of the kitchen.
There was a clutch of older women, in their quilted jackets, identical grey, knee-length wool skirts, and sensible brown leather shoes, issuing with authoritative tones and gestures specific instructions about the items they wanted.
I felt simultaneously integrated and assimilated, fully in the stream of Italian life as I waited to place my order, and forever locked out -- I would never be like one of those women.
It all seemed so evocative of city or village life: the neighborhood bakery. Ever since, I've always wanted to live in neighborhoods that are anchored by a bakery, but alas it's not so easy in America.
And while I was cutting myself a piece of panettone this morning, I wondered why that chore had remained lodged deep inside my mind. Living in Italy, one would not find it unusual to buy a panettone.
But I think the idea of rushing around town, preparing for Christmas, crossing chores off your list -- it all constitutes such a fundamental activity that it almost seems like a scene out of Dickens.
Going to the neighborhood bakery and ordering a Christmas treat is as far as you can get from the suburban shopping mall or car traffic or the incessant intertwining of romance with the birth of Jesus (doesn't that seem a bit odd?).
And it was enough just to breathe in the scent of the panettone this morning to unearth this memory.
Now if you buy a panettone this Christmas, you won't remember the same thing, but you'll have the same sensation of enjoying a seasonal treat. And Lord knows, nothing is more Italian than eating a particular dish at a specific time of year -- and then not again until next year.