By Christine Jackson
We visited Siena on Sunday and made a few stops outside the city on the way. One of these stops was La Fabbrica del Panforte Siena, where panforte “masters” produce several types of sweets in addition to the traditional panforte. It’s said that the Sienese have the sweetest teeth in Tuscany. I believe it. I was only around the city for the day and I think I ingested more sugar than I have over my entire life.
The longest lasting tradition among the sugarbuzzed Sienese is panforte. Panforte has been produced in and around Tuscany since the 13th century. The fruit cake-like confection was born of necessity, meant to give people energy with its mix of sugar, honey, flour, nuts and dried fruits. A later variation, panpepato, added spices to the mix.
The mixture is baked in a shallow, circular pan with an edible wafer on the bottom to keep it from sticking. Once finished, each panforte at the factory is handwrapped by a master and sealed for sale. The ingredients are listed on the package, except for the spice mix, which is a closely guarded secret. Each panforte bakery has its own mix that makes its product unique.
Both variations of the sweet, labeled as Margherita (panforte) and Nero (panpepato), are available for sale at La Fabbrica del Panforte Siena, along with other cakes and cookies. After touring the factory to learn the baking process, we got a chance to try some of the products.
The Margherita tasted like a sweet, dense fruit cake. The consistency is soft and packed with dried fruits and almonds for texture. The Nero is similar, but with a flavor closer to the spicy German lebkuchen found around Christmas and Oktoberfest. The fruit and nuts cut the spice-heavy gingerbread flavor to create something a little less aggressive than its German cousin, but just as delicious.
Also available were flat, yellowish cookies that tasted of almonds and aniseed. It’s been over 24 hours and I still don’t know how I felt about them other than that I know they were strange. The other cookies were soft, crumbly mounds with something the color of dust sprinkled on top. They were delicious. They’re nearly scone sized and taste like walnuts, sugar and just the right amount of anise. Not too strong like the first cookies, but just right.
I walked away with a bag of the second cookies “to share” (they’re mostly for me) and a Panforte Nero to give to my grandmother along with a thank you note when I get home. Hopefully the German roots reach all the way to the taste buds.