I’ve given and eaten many a Christmas panettone, and always cross my fingers it won’t be dry.
No chance of that with Panbriacone, a sweet bread with an eggy panettone base, all natural ingredients and a whopping 15-18% alcohol content. The name is a shortened form of pan dolce ubriaco, roughly translated as “drunken sweet bread.” After baking, it is injected with a dessert wine like vin santo or passito or a spirit such as rum, which preserves and keeps it moist for up to a year.
Panbriacone is made exclusively by the Bonci family in the Tuscan town of Montevarchi, and it comes with a sweet story I’m about to tell you. Nice gift, right? Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo agrees: “I’m a big fan of Bonci’s Panbriacone. Everytime I go to artisanal food trade shows, I stop to eat a piece. It is a fantastic product made by fantastic people.” But she doesn’t stock it for fear that American customers wouldn’t go for it.
In fact, the only online U.S. source for Panbriacone I found is A.G. Ferrari. So I’m
hoping through this post–probably futilely, but it is Christmas, after all–to set off a groundswell of demand for this hard-to-get product.
Silvio Bonci took over his father’s bakery and now his three sons are the third generation to enter the business. “Fifteen years ago, we set out to invent a new kind of artisanal bakery product–a sweet bread we could sell not only during the holidays but throughout the year.” The morning I visited, Silvio showed me the mega mixing bowl where yesterday’s mixture of flour, natural starter and water had generated big yeasty blisters on the surface, a stage known as the pre-impasto. To this he added butter, sugar, eggs and more flour, finishing with sultanas from Turkey and Zante currants from Greece.
The raisins are for a classic Panbriacone, but there are other versions. “When we find beautiful fresh fruit, we like to use it,” says Gianluca, the middle son. Last summer, for instance, they flavored breads with Amarena cherries and blackberries. For Moka Nero, the coffee flavor, they make espresso with a bar-sized machine.
Next a machine weighed and divided the dough into 70-gram blobs, which the two younger sons shaped and placed on baking sheets for transfer to sauna-like rising rooms. It takes 36 hours to make Panbriacone, so I didn’t see the entire process. But I did see the baked loaves cooling–upside down, allowing gravity to create a more rounded, uniform shape. And I watched the final stage, the bagnatura, during which the liqueur spurts into tiny tunnels punched throughout each round loaf.
Toward the end of the morning, Silvo pulled the madre from the refrigerator. He has used this natural starter his entire working life. He cut the sponge in slices, soaked them in water for 20 minutes and, after draining, added flour, water and a little honey, and
churned the mixture in an electric mixer. After kneading, he tenderly wrapped the sponge in cloth and secured it with twine before returning to the refrigerator.
Panbriacone may be an invention only 15 years old, but its foundation is that madre, sustained through a daily routine that has endured since the Bonci family acquired it from a Piemontese baker, more than 60 years ago.
I haven’t yet ordered any of the Bonci breads here, but the rum Panbriacone I brought home last June was devoured during the Thanksgiving break. Delicious, and still perfectly moist.