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Panforte, Siena’s traditional Christmas cake

Posted by GLflorence on November 18, 2019

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You can taste it all around Tuscany, but its roots can be found in Siena. It merges sweetness and acidity, and it’s both crunchy and soft. Here’s the story of Panforte, a cake that has been eaten at Christmas since the Middle Ages. 

Panforte, the origins

This delicious cake is one of the most famous and ancient in Tuscany. The name may come from a focaccia made during the Middle Ages with flour, water, figs, grapes and honey: since its flavor was very intense, people started to call it panis fortis (strong bread), which became Panforte afterwards. The pastry that we taste today is quite different from the original version, though. Due to its proximity with the Via Francigena, Siena was indeed a trade centre and started to add spices like ginger, coriander, anise and cloves to this cake. Spices were very expensive at the time and were only used for medicaments and for meals prepared during special occasions. They were normally bought by abbeys and groceries, the ancestors of modern pharmacies. As a matter of fact, today’s most famous Panforte’s bakers are some ancient grocer's shops which are still active. Well-known since the Middle Ages, the original Panforte is black. However, a white version was created in 1879 to honor Queen Margherita, who came to Siena to see the Palio. Nowadays this more sugary variety is the most common one, being more appreciated by modern palates.

 
 
 
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I.G.P. etiquette and its sacred guidelines

The main ingredients of Panforte are flour, almonds, candied fruit, spices, sugar and honey. It may sound like an odd combination, but it’s been winning Tuscan people heart since 1300. Usually eaten at Christmas, this cake was born in Siena and has been boasting the I.G.P. etiquette (Indication of Protected Origin) since 2013. After ricciarelli, Panforte has been the first Italian sweet with the I.G.P. label, a prize won following very strict rules. The  procedural guidelines establish that a real Panforte has to be created and baked in the province of Siena, a rule that made many famous bakers outside the province protest, since they had been baking this traditional cake for centuries. However, rules are rules and to produce an I.G.P. product you have to follow them: just Siena’s bakers can now create the original cake, following the quantities and the ingredients allowed by the guidelines.

 
 
 
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Local product, international ingredients

Despite its being an I.G.P. product, Panforte is not a km 0 cake: if the spices previously mentioned weren’t brought to Italy from other states, Panforte would have never existed. The combination between local and exotic made this perfect mix become possible: coriander, ginger, cloves and other spices gave a new taste to this typical sweet, which was previously made with Tuscan products. Today flour, almonds and dried fruit come from Siena’s area. Candied fruit should be made with some local melons called “zatti” (guidelines states that 40% of Panforte’s candied fruit should be made of this melon) but most of it comes from other lands. For this reason this product is not a D.O.C. (Denomination of Protected Origin) but an I.G.P. instead: the ingredients are processed following strict rules and the quality of the product is indisputable, but they don’t always come from the same defined area where the cake is baked. Panforte is more about taking care of a tradition rather than guaranteeing the perfect quality!

Would you like to taste this delicious cake in the place where it was born? Join our Tour! You will visit Siena, San Gimignano and Monteriggioni with a local professional guide and discover the heart of Tuscany! 

 
 
 
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