The story behind Europe's first café with electric lighting

The Baj family has been at the forefront of Milan’s confectionery scene for more than 250 years. Whilst the family has been making confections since 1768, it’s Giuseppe Baj who gives the family name its fame when he opens Confetteria Baj on Milan’s famous Piazza del Duomo in 1872. It becomes one of the most prominent shops and cafés in town, attracting artists, musicians and intellectuals. Among them Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the artistic Futurist Movement.

Historic image of a grand cafe in Milan

In 1883, Milan becomes the first city in Europe - and the second in the world, after Chicago - to get an electric power station. The power plant is built on Via Santa Radegonda, just steps away from the Piazza del Duomo. Together with some of its neighbours, such as Caffè Cova and the iconic Scala Theatre, Confetteria Baj is the first building in all of Europe to be lit with electric lighting. It's a feat of human engineering at that time and it makes Confetteria Baj a destination in its own right. The shop features prominently on many promotional images of the day, with the Dome of Milan on its right and the chimney of Europe's first power station clearly right behind it.

A historic print of Milan's main square

However, whilst its electric lighting is certainly a major draw, what makes Confetteria Baj really famous is its panettone. This sweet Christmas bread is a Milanese classic and is made by countless bakeries across the city and beyond. The version made by Baj, though, is for decades considered by many to be the finest of the whole city. Its slow kneeding process and low-temperature baking are said to maintain the perfume and taste of the high quality ingredients like no other panettone. 

Historic advertisement for Panettone Baj

 

Although panettone is nowadays mainly sold during the Christmas period, in the 1700s and 1800s it was consumed all-year round. The outstanding panettone of Baj hence becomes a trademark of the family business that is produced throughout the year. Baj's panettone becomes such a quintessential part of Milan that there's a saying among locals in the 19th century that goes as follows: 'Before the arrival of the tramway in Milan, one could already taste the Baj Panettone'.

Historic wooden cake box with engraphed logo      Engraved historic cake box

The panettone from Baj also gains fame beyond the city borders of Milan. Giuseppe Baj even opens an office in Genova, Switzerland, and his panettoni are sent across Europe and even the United States, Russia and Australia.

After the Second World War, the Baj family business falls into decline and its grand cafe on Piazza del Duomo closes its doors. Several decades of oblivion later, the company is relaunched by descendents of Giuseppe Baj and the Baj panettone makes a grand comeback. It is made with a safely guarded 100-year-old mother dough, making the panettone from Baj stand out from the crowd once more.

Images credit: Baj