Nicola Fiasconaro pulls a floppy mass of panettone dough off of a conveyor belt, plops it onto a steel work table, and shapes the buttery, fruit-studded goop into a perfect little round. The legendary pastry chef makes it look easy, despite the dough’s reputation as impossible. Fiasconaro, who deflects when asked for his age, has been making artisan, naturally leavened, tradition-rich Sicilian panettone for over 30 years, ever since he started baking the traditionally Northern Italian bread at his father’s Sicilian bakery alongside traditional Southern offerings of cannoli, cassata, and ice cream. This is a man who has baked panettone for not one, not two, but three different popes. He could make — and probably has made — panettone with his eyes closed.
The Italian bread is enriched with a delirious quantity of butter, eggs, and fruit, which lends the unbaked dough a shiny, loose, liquidy quality that is only made manageable by the strong high-gluten flour that is its backbone. The dough ball on the steel table is at once stretchy like taffy and loose like honey, but Fiasconaro shapes it swiftly, folding it in on itself from four corners. When he is done, he lifts and gently places the dough seam-side-down into its paper case, sending it off for a day of proofing before baking. It will join thousands of other panettone, rising in spa-like temperatures in another room.
It’s September at the Fiasconaro factory in Castelbuono, Sicily, months before panettone starts to appear on Christmastime tables worldwide, but all of Fiasconaro’s loaves are already spoken for. In dumpster-size tubs lined up along the walls in the mixing room, yellow, webby dough practically spills over the edges, waiting to be mixed with candied orange, chocolate, hazelnuts, apricots. On a slower production day, Agata Fiasconaro — Nicola’s daughter and head of communications for the company — says that the bakery will produce 12,000 kilograms, or roughly 26,000 pounds, of dough. During the holidays, that number skyrockets to 16,000 kilograms, or 35,000 pounds of dough, per day. In its 10 ovens, Fiasconaro can bake over 1,200 1-kilogram panettoni at once.
The factory sits on top of the hill above the center of Castelbuono, a cobblestoned 14th-century village in the middle of Sicily’s mountainous Madonie National Park. Tourists come to see the park and Castelbuono Castle, but the bakery is a destination as well. Everywhere around the town, the smell of sugar follows you.
Of the village’s 9,000 residents, 180 people work at the factory, meaning the bakery employs about 2 percent of all locals. Together, they produce over a dozen varieties of panettone in several different sizes, selling Fiasconaro’s Sicilian panettoni to 60 countries.
“Every step is handmade from the beginning to the final product to the end of the development,” Agata Fiasconaro says. “Every year, we produce more panettone because we export all over the world. We add ovens, mixers, and people. Behind our product, there are people.” Castelbuono residents work in the mixing room, the upstairs cooling room where finished panettoni hang upside down by the hundreds like plump bats, and downstairs in the packaging room where every holiday panettone is hand-wrapped. While machines do the most of the heavy lifting — mixing, dividing, and shaping thousands of pounds of dough at once — every step requires human intervention and constant monitoring. Nicola, his son, Mario, and a very select list of employees maintain the 70-year-old sourdough starter (known as a lievito madre) that is the foundation of every Fiasconaro panettone. The commitment to preserving the craft is as strong as the smell of sweet bread.
When Fiasconaro Bakery was first opened in 1953 by Mario Fiasconaro, Nicola’s father, Northern cities like Milan were most famous for their enriched fruit-studded breads. Fiasconaro’s three sons, Nicola, Fausto, and Martino, grew up learning from their father, eventually taking over the business in different areas: Nicola learned to bake, Fausto became showroom manager, and Martino became the administration manager. In the late ’80s, Nicola fell in love with natural leavening and panettone, and brought the sweet bread to the business. He decided the bakery should not mimic the Northern original, but that it should make a Sicilian version of its own using Sicilian ingredients and highlighting Sicilian makers.
Thirty years (and three popes) later, Fiasconaro is known across the world for its panettone made in the Sicilian tradition. “There is a high excellence in the raw materials that we select from Sicily,” Agata Fiasconaro says. “We choose what we can find in our land.” Panettone made from Sicilian strawberry jam and Modica chocolate spread, or with pistachios, oranges, apricots, and almonds all grown in Sicily set Fiasconaro apart from its Northern competitors.
But most notable for Fiasconaro is its use of the ingredient manna, a resin harvested from ash trees in the Madonie Mountains surrounding Castelbuono. This sap is a natural sweetener that the bakers use in a special panettone named oro di manna: golden manna. Topped with manna cream made from the same ash tree resin, it’s an indulgent version of the bread that is especially popular around the holidays. (Why Fiasconaro doesn’t use manna as the sweetener in every panettone, Agata Fiasconaro explains: “We introduced manna to reduce the use of chemical sugar. We can’t use just manna because manna has laxative properties.”) The taste of the manna is akin to a caramel or a maple candy — it dries on the tree like white, craggy stalactites that the farmers sweetly call cannolis.
Like most preindustrial foods, true panettone in the original tradition requires days to make. Fiasconaro takes three days to complete its naturally leavened panettone. “In the industrial panettone, the panettone doesn’t rest. After the baking, they put it in the bag and it’s done,” Nicola explains in the cooling room, where his panettoni hang upside down for at least eight hours. “The panettone has stress and trauma, with this high temperature going straight inside the bag.” This leads to panettone’s dryness and poor texture, and overall bad taste — the reason panettone can get such a bad reputation, especially among Americans.
Though Agata says that no one believes him, Nicola claims that his days defending panettone traditions are ticking down. This year, Nicola would like to retire and let Mario, his pastry chef son, take over the bakery production for good, continuing the work Mario’s grandfather started 70 years ago. “He wants his kids to go on with his dream,” Agata says. What will he do if he’s not making panettone? He would like to travel more to immerse himself in art. It won’t be that unlike what he’s doing now — surrounded in Castelbuono by a different kind of art — but once he retires, Nicola will let others handle the artistry, while he sits back to enjoy.
Dayna Evans is a a writer and baker based in Philadelphia. She is currently the head baker at Downtime Bakery.