Panforte is a unique taste of Tuscany
One of the things we love most about Italian food is the way regional delicacies thrive in every corner of the country, unique dishes that can only be found in a certain town or province using a special technique or ingredient that ties it to its home. Especially when it comes to desserts, there are so many ways that creative Italians over the centuries have brought a little sweetness into their lives. That’s the story of panforte, an unusually delicious dried fruit-and-nut confection from Siena, in Tuscany.
On the surface, this flat little cake dusted with confectioner’s sugar appears homely and rustic. It’s made with a stiff dough of flour, honey, and warming spices like cinnamon, ginger, and clove mixed with a heroic amount of nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts and dried fruit like orange, citron, and melon. But when it was first made in the 13th century by a nun at the Montecellesi monastery, it was a crowd-pleasing refinement of a type of sweet bread that had been around since ancient Roman times.
The story goes that the nun was on her way to make the bread, known as panes melato, when she discovered that mice had made a mess of her pantry, knocking over the various spice containers and mixing their contents. Never one to let food go to waste, she gathered up all the spices and added them to a pot where she had combined honey, fruit, and nuts. Just then, a black cat came up to the nun and scratched her leg. Believing it to be a demon, she picked up the pot off the stove and threw it at the cat to scare it away. Her baking project now ruined, she tasted the cooled mixture in the pot and determined it to be delicious as is!
With its rich, honeyed sweetness, expensive exotic spices, and abundance of luxurious fruits and nuts, her panforte became a staple of noble banquet tables and Christmas celebrations, when a taste of luxury could be enjoyed by all. Variations on the treat proliferated, including panforte nero, which uses cocoa powder and black pepper for a robust spiciness. To mark a visit to the region from the newly crowned Queen Margherita in 1879, the original panforte was made a bit softer and easier to eat, and was renamed panforte margherita in her honor.
Today, visitors to Siena will find paper-wrapped discs of panforte in local specialty shops and pasticcerias selling wedges to be enjoyed alongside an espresso. It’s still a winter holiday favorite, but it’s become an icon of the city and is equally delectable in summer, especially for those who are eagerly awaiting the warm baking spice-tinged scents of autumn. Chewy and decadent, panforte sits at the intersection between cake and candy, a true taste of Tuscany that could only come from this stunning medieval city on a hill.