As the seasons shift so does our collective appetite for winter treats and tasty tipples. In this spirit, Monocle visited five festive food firms that specialise in products that we think will embody and elevate any occasion. We profile the Niigata-based team that brews a warming winter saké, break bread with the best panettone maker in the Lombardy capital and bend the ear of a baklava maestro in Istanbul. German gingerbread and Spanish port round off our festive finds.
The sight of panettone in bakeries, that sweet dome-shaped bread served as dessert or enjoyed over breakfast, signals that Christmas is close. At third-generation-run pastry shop Gattullo customers linger at a walnut-panelled bar to reserve their loaf, which is prepared on the premises over the course of two days.
The family recipe adheres strictly to the use of natural ingredients. First, bakers add yeast to flour and water and allow the concoction to rise overnight. The best bit comes the next morning: flour, eggs, butter and sugar are mixed in with candied Italian citrus fruit and Turkish sultana raisins.
At midday the doughy delights hit the oven and are then cooled upside down on racks for hours before being wrapped and put on the shelf. The packaging is impressive but the smell alone has been known to seduce passers-by.
Facing competition from Latin America, protected designation of origin status is being sought to cement panettone’s reputation as Italian through and through.
When master baklava-maker Yavuz Inal steps onto the factory floor, production stops and every worker bows courteously, hand on heart. “There are a lot of old secrets and old rules here,” says Inal, through a haze of wheat starch. “You really can’t take your eye off the processes for a minute.”
Baklava is the signature Turkish gift and the Gulluoglu family have been making it in Gaziantep since 1820. Karakoy Gulluoglu opened in Istanbul in 1949, the first in the city, and every piece of baklava is made in a factory just a block away. It is famous for its thin and light pastry, with 40 silk-thin layers in every piece. There’s also a meticulous ingredient list, comprising pistachios harvested in summer and goat and sheep’s milk oil procured from a specific valley near Urfa.
Although the Romans, Greeks and Turks had their squabbles, few have lasted longer than their collective claim to have invented baklava. The layered filo-pastry treat, held together with syrup or honey, was likely perfected in the 15th century in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Despite rivalry over its creation story the sweet treat is enjoyed equally throughout the Middle East and the Maghreb.
No treat spells out Christmas like the smell of freshly baked gingerbread, and in Selb, northern Bavaria, the elisenlebkuchen has a unique taste. Usually the spiced biscuit is a quarter almonds and hazelnuts but the Hatzel brand rounds it up to an even third.
The recipe harks back to Lorenz Hatzel, who founded the confectioner in the Fichtel mountains close to the Czech border in 1928, where monasteries with access to exotic spices led to the creation of gingerbread (and its subsequent protected status). The shop is now run by Michael Hatzel, the founder’s grandson who, with his brother Christian, continues the tradition of creating his beloved biscuits by hand and in small batches according to a time-tested recipe.
Take the biscuit
Gingerbread has been prepared in Europe for hundreds of years – sometimes as a hard biscuit and at other times crumbly bread – from a motley concoction of honey, spices, nuts or candied fruit. The German take is called lebkuchen and often takes the form of a honigkuchenpferd (literally meaning honey cake horse).
Some purists are horrified by the thought of heating saké; usually the practice is reserved for cheaper, less refined brews. At Imayotsukasa brewery in Niigata – where they have been making saké since 1767 – they take a more relaxed view, pointing out that in the Edo period gently warmed saké (kanzake) was consumed year-round.
The firm’s refined Junmai Ginjo Imayotsukasa can take some warming and still retain its delicate balance of flavours. Master brewer Osamu Takasugi and his team stick to traditional methods (no added alcohol or artificial ingredients), using spring water from Niigata’s Mount Suganadake. “The flavours start to open up when warm as the rice flavour gradually comes to the foreground,” says sales manager Yoshihisa Sato. “It’s excellent when matched with stews, salted seafood and dishes with a strong taste.”
María Romero is part of a sherry-making dynasty that started in 1830 with her great-grandfather Pedro, whose original estate Mar 7 occupies. While she sources grapes that thrive in Sanlúcar’s rich albariza soil and ages her port for the customary 15 years, she opts for century old American barrels rather than the usual younger oak casks common in the trade. The result is a singular flavour unique to the winery, which releases just 500 bottles of each sherry per year.
Sherry is a fortified wine that rose to popularity in the UK in the 18th century, thanks in part to low duties and a war with France that threatened wine supplies.