Siena's Panforte: Showing Fruitcake Who's Boss Since the Middle Ages

Have you ever eaten something and not particularly liked it upon first bite but developed desire to eat it anyway? It’s as if there’s something about it that you know you could learn to love over time. That’s what panforte, a confection from Siena, does to me. Panforte means “strong bread.” The name comes from the blend of warm spices that go into it, like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and coriander. I think its name is also appropriate because it’s so heavy and dense you could probably use it as a mild weapon if necessary.

Something along these lines: “Don’t mess with me now, I’m just back from the pastry shop and I’ve got strong bread in this bag.”

Most people compare panforte to fruitcake. I admit, there are some similarities. They’re both substantial cakes full of nuts and dried/candied fruits. They are both traditionally Christmas cakes, although panforte is now available year-round in Siena, Tuscany, and I’ve even seen some in Umbria.

The glaring difference to me, however, is that fruitcake is almost universally disgusting to me. I’ve had a single bite of one that I didn’t mind but, other than that, I loathe most of them with the fire of a thousand burning suns.

In my strong, but humble opinion, it’s the quality of the ingredients that take panforte out of the realm of fruitcake and into the realm of delicacy. How many times have you seen a fruitcake and it has those neon-green and fire-engine red, toxic-looking “cherries” peering out at you like demented eyes? And green cherries? That’s just unnatural. I do not want them in my mouth. Ever.

Panforte? Recipes differ, of course, and there are two main types. Panforte Nero has bitter almonds and cocoa which give it a deep, dark color. Panforte Margherita is lighter and a little less intensely flavored. They’re both full of good, natural stuff like warm, deep spices, honey, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, figs, dates, and candied fruits like lemon, orange peel, and even melon.

A thick, sticky dough is made by mixing the chopped fruits, nuts, and a bit of flour with a boiled honey and sugar mixture. It is then spread evenly over wax paper in a springform pan and baked. The final product is dusted with confectioner’s sugar and then cut into wedges. What you get in the end is rich and thick; a cake that leans toward candy territory. It’s sweet, spicy, nutty, and sometimes a little bitter.

Throughout Siena, shops lure you to their windows with stacks of these cakes, made using their special recipe, showing off the bounty of ingredients they’ve packed into a single slice. I think this is where my strange attraction to panforte comes into play. I get to Siena, I’m surrounded by remarkable medieval architecture, I’m lulled into a happy historical stupor, and, then, unique, historic desserts start winking at me through all of these windows. How can I not get a slice?

Panforte, you see, has a long historical connection to Siena. I have a great book about Italian food and its history called Culinaria Italy. It says that the first mention of panforte shows up in a document from 1205, so it has been around in one form or another for a long time.

The book recounts a legend about the creation of panforte. As the story goes, a young man named Nicoló de Salimbeni got sick of his indulgent ways and gave up all of his worldly possessions to a nun named Sister Berta. These possessions included a bag of spices, which were very dear in those days, and a recipe for a sweetmeat of apples, flour, and dried fruits called melatello. Sister Berta made the recipe but decided it was too extravagant for nuns to eat, so she passed it on to a bishop. The recipe continued to pass from person to person until it reached the hands of a famous cook named Ubaldino, who was so well-known that Dante wrote about him in the Divine Comedy. Ubaldino changed the recipe a bit and, essentially, created the first panforte. Panforte then became one of Siena’s exports and was thought to be an aphrodisiac because of the amount of exotic spices used in the recipes. It appeared in Venice around 1370. (Culinaria Italy, ed. Claudia Piras (h.f.ullmann, 2008), 245.)

So if you’re ever in Siena, grab a slice and wander the medieval streets while pondering history and/or trying to discern any aphrodisiac effects.

If you can’t make it to Siena, you can always try making panforte at home. I haven’t made one yet and there are lots of recipes strewn around the web, but these are the ones I’ve been looking at so far: Davina Cucina and Bon Appetit. When I do make one, I’ll be sure to do a post on it.

If you make or have made one in the past, feel free to leave a comment about your experience!

Oh, and although I really, really hate fruitcake, I'm always willing to give them a taste. If you have any tried, true, beloved, delicious, and neon fruit-free recipes, feel free to let me know!

Siena, Part Two: Medieval and Magical

On Monday I wrote about my first trip to Siena, which is south of Florence and in the center of Tuscany. I got off the bus and looked out to see a fairy-tale view. Well, I rummaged through a bunch of boxes and found all of my pictures from that trip!

Here’s the view that took my breath away.

I took the photo before I had a digital camera, so when I scanned and cropped the image, it just came out looking even more like a painting. Beyond all of the fairy-tale stuff, I find Siena to be a really relaxing city. It’s a good gateway between the busier, often tourist-packed streets of Florence and the quieter towns and countryside Tuscany offers. There aren’t a ton of must-see sights, but the hilly, curved, stone streets tempt you to explore the medieval architecture and sometimes unexpected vistas.

Two of the main sites are the Duomo and the Piazza del Campo. The Duomo is one of my favorite churches in Italy (Ahem. So far. There are so many more to see, you know.) It was first completed in the last half of the 13th century, but an addition in the 14thcentury made it one of the largest churches in Italy at the time.

Its façade is stunning, but it’s the deep greenish-black and white marble on the tower and in the interior that makes it feel somehow lighter, hopeful even, to me.

The black and white marble, by the way, is a nod to the city itself, whose shield is also black and white. The story behind the choice of these colors relates to the founding of Rome. If you know the legend of Rome, you’ll remember two twins, Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf, founded the city. Well apparently, Remus’s two twin sons, Senius and Aschius, ran off with the she-wolf statue from Apollo’s temple. Senius, from whom the city takes its name, rode a black horse, while Aschius was on a white one. As you walk around, be on the lookout for statues or depictions of a she-wolf suckling a child. There’s even one in the floor of the Duomo. While you’re looking for she-wolves, you might notice a number of other beasts, birds, insects, and other images around the city on flags, tiles, or lampposts. These denote which one of the 17 contrade, or districts, you are in.

Originally there were 59 contrade, which were created for military and administrative purposes in the Middle Ages. Tuscany was not stable or unified at the time. Cities and towns faced constant struggles over power and land. Siena and Florence, for example, had an especially torrid relationship. So in the 14th century, each contrada provided men to aid in Siena’s military defense. Over time, the number dropped to the 17 that remain today. Four of them are nobile or noble for various acts/reasons, like providing exceptional help in a battle. Each has its own symbol, coat of arms, motto, museum, and fountain. Most contrade have both an adversary, which is often a neighbor, and an ally.  There’s the:

  • Aquila or Eagle
  • Bruco or Caterpillar
  • Chiocciola or Snail
  • Civetta or Little Owl
  • Drago or Dragon
  • Giraffa or Giraffe
  • Istrice or Crested Porcupine
  • Leocorno or Unicorn
  • Lupa or She-Wolf
  • Nicchio or Seashell
  • Oca or Goose
  • Onsa or Wave
  • Pantera or Panther
  • Selva or Forest
  • Tartuca or Tortoise
  • Torre or Tower
  • Valdimontone or Valley of the Ram

This may seem like another nice leftover from medieval times, but the contrade still play a role in Siena today. Twice a year, on July 2 and August 16, 10 members of the districts compete in a hugely popular bareback horse race called the Palio. Seven districts compete “by right” and 4 draw for a chance. One of my Eyewitness Travel Guide books says it is a medieval tradition that dates back to 1283 but the Palio website states it takes place to

celebrate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near the old houses that belonged to Provenzano Salvani. The holy apparition was therefore called "Madonna di Provenzano" in whose honour the very first Palio was run on August 16, 1656.” (More here)

The Palio, however, definitely retains an aura of medieval times with its costumes, flags, and ceremony. The race takes place in the center of town in the Piazza del Campo. There’s a central triangular area that fans out from one side to make the piazza. This part is fenced in and the area between it and the buildings makes a ring that is filled with sand.

Thousands of viewers pack the inner triangle and people sell off spaces in windows and on balconies for viewing the race. After all the ceremonial stuff is done, the race goes by in a flash. Then the celebrations start! [youtube=] I’ve never been to the Palio. To be honest, I have no desire to see the actual race. I don't really like horse races after a traumatic experience watching a steeplechase when I was a kid. But I was in Siena after the Palio one year when the celebration was still going on and I loved the atmosphere. The Oca/goose contrada won and while walking around town we stumbled on an impromptu party. The owner of a shop popped open a couple of bottles of prosecco for a crowd. One of the corks landed by me. I still have it today. I remember thinking at the time, “Ah, this is the life!” Everyone was singing, laughing, chatting, and enjoying the festivities and their win. On another trip, as we lazily strolled around the Piazza, a wedding party came out of the Palazzo Pubblico (which also has a civic museum if you’re interested). The bride, groom, and small group of friends and family hugged and kissed in the warm sun. It all seemed so lovely and relaxed.

Then the bride and groom walked around the Piazza as onlookers clapped and wished them well. I loved how public and intimate it was all at the same time. I would love to do something similar one day. That’s really what Siena has always been about for me: relaxed exploration. Yes, there are tourists, but there is also the beauty of life going on around you. You can go there and just be and see. I’m now partial to shopping a bit and then people-watching in the Piazza while eating fig gelato. My favorite experiences in Siena have always unfolded quietly like a gift. I didn’t go looking for them, they were just there. I said this on Monday, but I think it would be even better to use it as a home-base for a longer trip. I would love to experience more of the restaurants, markets, and the evenings. It’s so great in the day that I’d like to see what kind of magic twilight brings.

Siena, Part One: A Quick Mental Getaway

A little note: I have to admit I’m writing this post rather late. Like a lot of people, I’ve spent many hours in the past few days watching the devastation in Japan unfold. My heart aches for everyone affected by the earthquake and I wish I could give more, do more, and help somehow.

So with that being said, I’ll just do a quick “daydream destination” post tonight. I think sometimes it’s good to take a minute to try to unwind a bit from the constant barrage of bad news and haunting images.

After talking about my love affair with Florence last Monday I think it’s only right for me to take you down my little rabbit hole of Tuscany-love even further.

After Florence, I found that the cities, towns, and countryside of Tuscany were wonderfully varied and full of surprises. It seems logical to follow-up Florence with its former rival, Siena.


I remember getting off the bus on my first visit. It was on a small tour I took with 3 friends, some chaperones, and our teacher in high school. The driver parked outside one of the city’s old arched entrances and we all happily tumbled out of the bus to stretch our legs and see what this new city had in store for us.

Just opposite of the archway was a stone wall overlooking the countryside surrounding Siena. It was November, the week of American Thanksgiving, and fall was starting to turn the landscape from green to gold. Although the sun was out, the farmland and the houses that dotted the landscape looked as if they were in soft focus.

It was breathtaking. I distinctly remember feeling like I was in a fairy-tale come to life. After a few minutes of trying to soak it all in, I finally tore myself away from that vista. Together with my classmates, we walked under the archway and into the medieval city on cobbled streets smoothed by hundreds of years use.  The fairy-tale feeling continued. It was like going back in time but still having all the amenities of modern society.

Siena is one of those places that I think a lot of people see on a  quick day-trip and then move on to the next site to see. I have a strong hunch, though, that there’s more to Siena than first meets the eye. Each time I visit, I leave wanting more, wishing I had given the city more time to reveal itself to me.

Tomorrow I'll share a bit more of what I think makes Siena special.