MONTALCINO, Italy — This Tuscan hill town is known for its Brunello di Montalcino wine, which seems to be sold in every other shop tucked into 14th-century buildings that line the narrow cobblestone streets. But it’s also famous for panforte (literally “strong bread”) a unique Italian cake made with candied fruits, honey, and nuts.
The bakery that celebrates panforte is easy to miss. There’s no display window, just plain glass and double wooden doors with “Pasticceria” painted inside the door frame. The sign proclaiming “Pasticceria Gelateria Mariuccia, i buoni dolci Montalcinesi Laboratorio” (Bakery Gelataria, good Montalcinese sweets, laboratory), on the wall above the door, is a good 3 feet above eye level.
But cozy, sweet smells beckon more clearly than any sign. A case with rounds of panforte — they’re each 4 kilos (more than 8½ pounds) — come in five varieties. In the tiny space, customers who are greeted by co-owner Laura Bartali select wedges of the large panforte or buy whole smaller rounds in a variety of sizes, as well as torrone and cookies. The bakery, established by the Mariuccia family in 1935, is also owned by Simonetta Marcucci, Marco Tempori, and Angel Orlando Nestore, who all work in the kitchen.
In Italy, writes Carol Field in “Celebrating Italy,” panfortes are “made by pastry chefs, inheritors of the tradition of the speziale, apothecaries and herbalists who sold spices for culinary as well as medicinal purposes.” Hence the word “laboratory” on the bakery’s sign. The confections, she writes, are “not really breads at all.” Some people refer to panforte as a kind of a fruitcake, but calling it that does it a disservice, given fruitcake’s negative associations, and the popularity of these sweets. You might say it’s a complex cross between cake and candy, with a dense, chewy texture. The batter is made with warm spices, honey, nuts, and, yes, candied fruit. In fact, the baking technique includes heating sugar and honey to a candy stage, before mixing it with flour and nuts; there’s no added fats or eggs.
Mariuccia makes five varieties, two “white” and three with chocolate. “Panforte is born in Siena,” Bartali says in halting English. “But our recipe is maybe better than Siena, people tell me. We have the right balance of ingredients.”
Bartali comes from Montalcino, and remembers the chocolate ice cream made by Mariuccia, but that is no longer part of the business.
What the five kinds of panforte have in common are whole almonds, candied orange peel, honey, sugar, and flour. Then the variations begin. The classic bianco (the favorite of baker Nestore) also has candied melon and citron, along with cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and nutmeg. The white round is a favorite at the holidays in Italy and sold in every supermarket, Bartali says.
Mandorlata is the other blond panforte, made without spices; it’s softer, “for children, and people who don’t like spice,” Bartali explains. Also on the milder scale is torta marita, lightly spiced, with only candied orange, plus chocolate and whole hazelnuts.
On the other end of the spectrum is panforte nero, a chocolate version of the classic bianco, and a house specialty. It has chili peppers. “Not too many people make it,” Bartali says.
Her own favorite is pan pepato (literally “peppery bread”), chocolate with ground hazelnuts. “It has more cinnamon than the others,” Bartali says. “Cinnamon is the first taste you have, then black pepper.”
Spicy, sweet, white, chocolate, soft, or chewy, there’s a panforte for everyone.
Pasticceria Gelateria Mariuccia, Piazza del Popolo, 29, Montalcino, Italy, telephone 39-0577-849319, www.pasticceriamariuccia.il.