At Thanksgiving we posted about turkeys, so it is time for Christmas food, specifically panettone described by The Economist as an Italian Christmas cake (A piece of cake: How Italy’s bakers cope with seasonal demand, Dec 10). The goodie is traditionally produced by local pastry shops but also by large commercial bakers which face a challenging production planning problem:
The grand cafés in Milan, such as Taveggia, Sant’Ambroeus and Cova, about which Ernest Hemingway wrote in “A Farewell to Arms”, simply squeeze a few batches of panettoni into their normal baking schedules as Christmas approaches. But for industrial producers such as Bauli, which will make 12m this season, that is not possible. Although Bauli is diversified into year-round products like croissants and biscuits, seasonal cakes account for over 50% of its turnover, which is expected to be €420m ($570m) this year.
Instead, Bauli hires lots of seasonal workers to work on dedicated production lines: up to 1,200 of them at peak times, more than its permanent staff of around 800. Production of panettone lasts about four months, starting in September. “Attention to ingredients and the use of new technologies in production give a shelf-life of five months without preservatives,” says Michele Bauli, deputy chairman and a member of the firm’s founding family.
For an idea of what industrial production looks like, check out this video and story on GlobalPost (For panettone, price might not equal quality, Dec 30, 2008).
It should be noted that Bauli has bought Motta since this story was published. It raises an interesting question of when does industrial production trump craft work. One would like to believe that the careful work of a dedicated craftsman can outdo an over-sized factory but running a sizable factory requires careful control of many parameters and that has to count for something.
“The attention given to the preparation of this product in the industry is far superior to what one would think — or what the sight of millions of boxes of this product in supermarkets could make us imagine,” said Stanislao Porzio, author of “The Panettone: History, Legends, Secrets and Fortune of a Christmas Protagonist.”
Perhaps small shops could differentiate themselves on some other measure beside quality but it is not clear that is the case:
And although consumers might think an artisanal product guarantees them better quality, the strictures of Italian law eat away at that argument. In 2005, the Italian Ministry of Agricultural Food and Forestry issued a decree to ensure that industrial brands such as Motta hew to the traditional panettone recipe, simple and without substitutions. This is the third year that Motta has followed the guidelines, which enforce the use of grade A eggs, real butter and natural yeast.
The law on ingredients would seem to level the playing field across big and small makers. How can a small bakery claim to be better when they are mandated to use the same ingredients as a large factory?