MILAN -- The Motta factory clanked and buzzed like one Willy Wonka might design. The scent was of Christmas: freshly baked bread, sugar and raisins. Inside, a massive oven pumped out 72 panettones every minute.
Millions of Italians purchase the sweet Christmas breads baked at factories like this one, paying about $7 per loaf at a supermarket. Nearby, in the fancy patisseries of Milan -- panettone's birthplace -- a smaller group of Italians pay as much as 10 times that for their own muffin-shaped loafs. But experts say it is hard to taste any difference between the artisanal creation and the breads baked on a production line.
"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."
Since his book on the origin and culture of the panettone was released last year, Porzio has organized a national conference on the famed bread, a product that is consumed by the ton in Italy every Christmas season and exported around the world.
Porzio said that unless customers buy from the few Italian panettone masters who have transformed the bread into a sophisticated culinary experience, there is no reason to spend $60 or $70 at a patisserie.
One artisanal baker, Michele Mastrorilli, cited the cost of his ingredients to justify his high price.
"If you notice, the artisan panettone can last a maximum of 20 days, maybe 25, whereas the industrial one can last almost one year," said Mastrorilli, a senior pastry chef at a popular Milan patisserie. "There must be some difference," he said.
The Motta plant, owned by Nestle, cranks out an average of 100,000 panettones a day during the Christmas season, compared to the 40 or 50 that are hand-crafted in a bakery. 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.
"There are no differences," said Giuseppe Zucchi, Motta head supervisor. "As a company that produces on an industrial scale, we put much care in choosing the raw ingredients, checking our suppliers, and checking the incoming raw materials as well as the finished product."
At the Motta factory, workers patiently nursed each Panettone during the 48-hour production cycle, making sure that speed didn't compromise quality. Stefano Orlando, one worker overseeing the yeast room, said that over the years the production line has been tailored to meet traditional recipe standards, in part through the use of technology.
"Coming from a small patisserie, I could see that Motta did respect the traditional process," said Orlando. The patisserie, he said, lacked metal and plastic detectors that could check the dough.
"That's how I realized that the industry really does give you more safety," he said.
Surely Angelo Motta himself, who created the modern panettone about a century ago, could not have envisioned the speed at which breads bearing his name would make their way into the world -- or the ways that a company the size of Nestle would try to uphold his standards.
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