MILAN (Reuters) - Cash-strapped Italians are refusing to let recession stop them enjoying their iconic panettone Christmas cake, and are even embracing variations on the tightly regulated recipe.
Italians ate about 38,000 tons of the dome-shaped cake last Christmas, according to industry association AIDEPI, and the two biggest producers are confident this year's sales will hold up.
With a few days to go until Christmas, market leader Bauli said this year's orders could still outstrip 2012 and Maina, the second biggest producer, expects its sales to rise more than 20 percent in 2013.
"Panettone is holding on despite economic difficulties, showing the Italian consumer does not intend to give it up," said Marco Brandani, chief executive of Maina.
Alberto Bauli, Bauli chairman, said his company expected to make about 500 million euros ($685 million) from all its baked goods this year, up from 483 million euros last year.
Italian consumers, shopping for Christmas during the country's longest recession for 60 years, are still choosing expensive panettone, which can cost 5 euros in the supermarket but sells for upwards of 28 euros in upmarket bakeries.
"People are being careful about what they spend, but they want quality," said Antonio Cipriani, standing behind the counter at his cafe and bakery in central Milan. "They might buy one panettone instead of two, or a smaller one."
The traditional panettone weighs 1 kg and takes 30 hours to make from a precise mix of flour, butter, eggs and sugar that has been enshrined in Italian law since 2006.
Cipriani said variations on the traditional product, such as a lighter "focaccia" version reminiscent of the Italian loaf, and containing pieces of pineapple, had been popular this year.
Cakes that stray from the regulations cannot be labeled panettone, but this does not deter dessert enthusiasts, according to Giovanna Casale, whose company Olio Carli makes a "sweet Christmas cake" using olive oil in place of butter.
"I would say sales have been rising," Casale said.
Maina says sales of its panettone filled with goodies such as chocolate or coffee cream have risen by 35 percent this year. It has also introduced a savory version.
To appeal directly to foreign markets, it has also developed new flavors, such as peanut butter for the United States and Grand Marnier orange liqueur for the British market.
"We have tried to adapt the traditional recipe to their tastes," said Brandani. Maina made 13 percent of revenue from exports last year, more than the average of less than 10 percent of turnover made by Italian panettone makers from sales abroad.
The classic panettone accounts for just under half of all Christmas cake sales in Italy, according to AIDEPI.
Bauli says its significance goes beyond the pleasure of a tasty treat for families at Christmas.
"These products also have a religious connotation," Bauli said. "Breaking bread together has a special meaning."
($1 = 0.7315 euros)
Editing by Alison Williams