Panettone is the Italian national Christmas cake, and it is notoriously difficult to perfect. So when Pasticceria Giotto’s version was named one of the 10 best in Italy, it was a real honor. But the most important difference between Giotto in Pantone and the nine others on the list is that Giotto is made in prison.
Inside the Du Palazzi prison (above) on the outskirts of Padua in northeastern Italy, a group of prisoners in white coats is overseen by four professional pastry chefs. Six days a week, they begin baking at 4 a.m., beginning with brioche served by local pastry shops and hotels. Giotto also makes cookies, pies, nougat, chocolate and ice cream – but Panettone is the specialty.
Giovanni, an inmate, who was identified only by his first name as per prison guidelines, has been working in the bakery for the last five years of his 23-year sentence. (The authorities would not disclose the detainees’ crimes.)
“I had never tasted panettone before I was in prison,” he said, “but I really like it, and every Christmas I get five or six and send them to my family in Sicily. “
The word panettone is derived from panetto, which is a small loaf cake. The suffix, -a, changes the meaning to “big cake”. Similar recipes date back to the Roman Empire, when honey was used to sweeten a type of leavened dough. The cake is mentioned in a recipe book written in the 1500s by Bartolomeo Scappi, the personal chef of the popes and kings at the time of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; It was first referred to as pan de ton (“luxury bread”) by the 18th-century scholar Pietro Veri in one of his writings.
A well-cooked panettone is a point of pride for an Italian pastry, and every year Italians consume about 9.5 million cakes, mostly around the holidays.
Cooking them is a meticulous process that – over the course of 72 hours – involves multiple kneading and leavening. After baking for an hour, the cakes are taken out of the oven and allowed to cool, hanging upside down, to avoid falling off their distinctive domed tops. In total, the Giotto team will be baking more than 80,000 panettones this holiday season.
The baking program, which began in 2005, is run by the Work Crossing Cooperative, a non-profit group that operates prison work programs in the region. In early December, the cooperative also opened a Pasticeria Giotto storefront in Padua.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the Italian prison system is overcrowded, and the national recidivism average is 70 percent, with most prisoners returning for more than their first sentence. However, this rate drops to 5 percent for prisoners who worked while in prison.
Matteo Marchetto, president of the Work Crossing Cooperative, said the Italian constitution explicitly mentions education as the object of prison sentences.
“Punishments must be abolished completely, but there must be a path to recovery as well,” said Mr Marcheto (top, right). “Otherwise, these years are wasting public resources.”
Before being accepted into the baking program, prisoners must work with a psychologist for six months. Once accepted, they do a six-month internship before becoming full employees. For the next six months, they earn 650 euros a month (about $735), then graduate up to €800, then finally €1,000. The prisoners continue to work with a psychologist throughout the process.
Pastry chef Matteo Concoletto, who helps supervise prisoners as they bake, said he had seen the benefits of the program before.
,One thing that gives great satisfaction is seeing a person who has never worked before and has been in prison for years, who gradually becomes emotional, a sense of responsibility for what he is doing acquires, begins to trust himself and others again,” he said.