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MILAN (Reuters Life!) - At a busy baker's in central Milan, the shelves full of Panettone cakes are fast emptying.
All day long, a flow of Milanese and tourists has streamed in to buy the dome-shaped, fluffy cake studded with raisins and candied fruit, a staple on the Italian Christmas table.
"It would not be Christmas without Panettone," pensioner Ermenegildo Rossi, 62, said as he purchased his 1-kg cake.
"This is a must for every Italian."
Italians may be spending less on Christmas gifts this year, but they are certainly not cutting back on the sweet stuff, with makers of the festive treat saying sales are up on last year as crisis-hit consumers seek comfort in tradition.
Market leader Bauli, which bought fellow brands Motta and Alemagna this year, has registered a 15 percent increase in orders from last year.
The group, which has a 40 percent market share and also is diversified into year-round production of croissants and biscuits, will produce 35 million Panettone and golden Pandoro cakes this Christmas. Those sales represent about half of its annual revenues, seen at more than 400 million euros ($572.2 million) this year.
"Panettone is like an anchor in Italy," Chairman Alberto Bauli said.
Last year, Italians ate 88.7 metric tons of the Christmas cakes, according to an Italian confectionary-makers association AIDI.
"We hope consumption will hold, thanks to the tradition and the symbolism of Christmas, which will probably push consumers to consume more despite a tough economic climate," AIDI director Mario Piccialuti said.
Panettone can vary from around 5 euros for a 1 kg (2.205 lb) cake in the supermarket to more than 30 euros in chic cafes.
"This is a mature market but there is still some growth," said Marco Brandani, chief executive of no. 2 maker Maina.
"Sweets have this consoling effect especially at a difficult time. Panettone is a symbol of an Italian tradition, and when there is some uncertainty, traditions hold."
Maina will make 15.5 million festive cakes this year. "We are up 8 percent on last year," Brandani said. "No one says no to a small purchase ... and you can give it as a present."
Production starts in September and lasts about four months, with the final sales rush in the last days before Christmas.
There are many stories about the possible origin of the cake -- one of the most often repeated holds that a nobleman disguised as a baker's assistant invented it to woo Aldagisa, the beautiful daughter of a Milan baker.
Others say Toni, a cook for Milanese nobleman Ludovico il Moro, invented it when ingredients for regular bread ran out, hence "pan di toni," or Toni's bread.
In reality, the cake probably evolved from the northern Italian tradition of sharing a large loaf of bread over Christmas. It now has regional varieties, from Genoa's pandolce to nut-filled, chocolate-topped panettone from the region of Abruzzo in southern Italy, and the golden pandoro of Venice.
Editing by Paul Casciato