There is a beautiful Italian word, spoetizzarsi, it literally means feeling the poetry drain out of you. I shall illustrate the usage with a little story that I am fond of telling. I had been in New Zealand for about six months, home sickness at an all time high, when I came out of the City Limits Café in Wellington and for a split second I had an intense, endorphin-laden sensation of being back in Milan. It was the smell of home. I turned around just in time to see the delivery truck that had just left the parking space next to me disappear into traffic.
That was my Proustian moment, then. Exhaust fumes. I was utterly spoetizzato.
By choice, I would have selected other moments, far more poetic aromas. How about the day in October when they would start the yearly production of panettone at the Alemagna bakery near my place? Not only it was a fabulous smell, a portent of butter and eggs and candied fruit, but also a prelude to Christmas, and the reaction among the kids in the area was practically Pavlovian. At least that's how I choose to remember it - the bakery closed down a long time ago - but I recall what the smell itself felt like, effortlessly, and needless to say it wasn't the same whiff you got by opening a box of the stuff so many weeks later. It was the smell of a moment in time, the cranking up of the season.
The exact origin of panettone is uncertain, but is generally made to coincide with the days of Ludovico il Moro, the Duke who hired Leonardo da Vinci as the city's main artist and engineer. Of all the many variations on the story of this happy invention, however, none that I know attributes the dome shaped bread-come-cake to Leonardo. It seems that the name is a conflation of pan del Toni, Toni's bread, and this Toni naturally we assume was a baker. That's about all we know. But we have some idea of the ritual that panettone fitted into, and it's a suggestive one. On Christmas day, the Milanese families used to congregate - as they had for centuries - in front of a block of oak lit in the hearth over a bed of juniper. The father would pour a glass of wine, drink the first sip and pass it around for everyone to have a taste, then he would throw a coin into the fire and dispense one coin each to the others. At the end of the ritual he would be handed three panettoni (which in earlier times had been wheat loaves), and he would cut a piece off one of them, which the family would have to keep intact until the following Christmas. This special piece was attributed thaumaturgical powers, and a great misfortune awaited those who should fail to preserve it.
So it goes like this: a non-liturgical ritual, that quite possibly predates Christianity and hasn't survived until the present day, has left us a cake, or rather, a recipe, a series of gestures and procedures for producing a smell capable, on a small industrial scale, to spread through a neighbourhood and make young minds think of Christmas.
It is just as well we cannot digitise smells, some might opine; but they, too, are the stuff of memory. Besides Proust, it was Patrick Süskind I think who most famously attempted to restore this most neglected of senses - in literature, I mean - setting his Perfume in the smelliest place in all of 18th-century France, and trying oh so very hard to make his words, fit for your eyes and ears, tickle the parts of the brain that would, if they could, speak in smellese. But at the end of the day his are no more than olfactory descriptions, and remain anchored to the page. I shall venture to suggest in fact - although naturally you should feel free to take issue - that when lost in a book you and I often find it quite easy to see with our mind's eye. But smelling with one's mind's nose is quite another matter.
I am not a good cook, and I know I shall never do justice to those of my mother's and my nonna's favourite dishes that I have doggedly tried to reproduce over the years. The taste will always leave something, possibly a lot, to be desired. But there comes a time in most preparations when I get something right - the smell. And I have every faith that even if I botched one or more aspects of the following recipe, if the panettone fails to rise or is misshapen, if no matter what I do it always burns on the outside and remains raw on the inside, hell, even if I should set fire to the kitchen, there will nonetheless be a moment when I shall, perhaps briefly, get hold of that smell, and be once again a boy walking past the Alemagna bakery.
Panettone alla milanese
Makes three panettoni of one kilogram each. (We're working on a quasi-industrial scale, remember).
1,350 g white flour
400 g butter
300 g castor sugar
250 g fresh baker's yeast
200 g currants
50 g candied citron
50 g candied orange
Tip on a wooden board 150 g of flour and create a fountain shape. Crumble the yeast in the fountain with a little warm water. Mix the flour in slowly to produce a soft dough and knead it well. Shape it into a ball and leave in a warm and dry place, inside a bowl covered with a cloth, for at least three hours, until double in size. Tip on the board another 130 g of flour, and create another fountain. Put the risen dough from the previous preparation in the middle and mix it with the rest of the flower, adding a little warm water in the process. Again you're going to make a ball, and place it in a covered bowl in the same dry and warm place, this time for two hours, again it ought to double in size. Dice the candied citron and the candied orange. Wash and soften in lukewarm water the currants (for no longer than fifteen minutes), then drain and dry them thoroughly.
Tip on the board 1 kilogram of flower, mix in two teaspoons of salt and create the usual fountain shape.
Melt on a very low heat 300 g of butter.
Melt the sugar in one inch of warm water. Whip in 12 yolks and three whole eggs. Put the container in bain-marie until lukewarm.
Take the twice-risen dough out of the bowl, place it in the middle of the fountain and, adding the warm melted butter first, then the egg and sugar syrup (also warm), mix in gradually all of the flour. Knead the dough vigorously for about 20 minutes, until it assumes the consistency of bread dough. Add the currants and candied fruit. Divide the dough according to how many panettoni you want to produce (which will depend in turn on the size of the oven), roll them, wrap them with cardboard bands and leave them to rise for another six hours in a warm place. Place them, without removing the cardboard, in a heated oven (200-220°C). Cut in pieces the remaining butter and put it quickly on the surface after five minutes of cooking. Put back in the oven for the remainder of the cooking time, which ranges from 45 to 90 minutes depending on the size of the panettone.
Translated and adapted from Anita Moretti, Le ricette della mia cucina milanese e lombarda (Milano: Edizioni del Riccio, 1980), pp. 148-149.
Francesca Belotti and Gian Luca Margheriti. 'Che storia il panettone'. Il Corriere della Sera.
Anita Moretti. Le ricette della mia cucina milanese e lombarda. Milano: Edizioni del Riccio, 1980.