Here I am, finally posting about a risotto recipe, a starter dish I’ve come to love making since moving to Turin (and subsequently, close to the rice fields of Vercelli) in 2007. Yet, I have to admit to feeling a little bit guilty, as my first risotto-related post is not Piedmontese. Instead, it comes from Piedmont’s neighbouring region of Lombardy and more specifically, the city of Milan. Yes, you guessed it. The subject of my post is the milanese starter per eccellenza, risotto alla milanese. Don’t worry Piedmont. One day, I’ll make it up to you with a post about one of your excellent risottos. It’s just that my current obsession with finding an Italian dish that has survived with some degree of spiciness intact from the Middle Ages has led me to Milan’s saffron-infused delight.
In their cookbook, La cucina del buon senso, Beppe Bigazzi and Sergio Grasso retell an amusing legend about the origins of this dish. A young apprentice glazier was working on a stained glass window in Milan’s Duomo in the late 1500s. At the time, saffron was used as a colorant for glazes. The apprentice was hungry and happened to be eating a plateful of rice, a grain that had been recently introduced to the Po valley. At some point, some saffron threads accidentally fell into his plate of rice. He mixed the strands into his rice, loved the flavour and voilà, risotto alla milanese was born.
Of course, there’s little proof to indicate that this story is true. Written evidence of a dish resembling risotto alla milanese, however, does date to the same period. In 1570, the Lombardy-born Bartolomeo Scappi (personal cook to Popes Julius III, Paul IV, Pius IV and Pius V) described a dish called la vivanda di riso alla Lombarda in his cookbook Opera. It included boiled rice, cacio cheese, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, cervellata (a milanese sausage made with pig’s brains and tinted with saffron) and cappon (a castrated rooster). Rich, spicy and sweet, risotto alla milanese’s probable ancestor dish would not appeal to our contemporary distinction between sweet and savoury. At the time though, spices and sugar were quite the status symbol. The aristocracy and upper classes were therefore fond of eating dishes with liberal doses of these condiments.
We have to wait until 1809 when the anonymously written cookbook Il Cuoco Moderno is published for the dish to become more palatable to contemporary tastes. In this publication, a dish called riso giallo in padella is prepared by sauteeing onion, rice, beef bone marrow and cervellata sausage. Very hot broth is then gradually added in ladlefuls with saffron threads left to infuse in it.
What about the white wine? Well, this ingredient, one we’ve come to consider as being indispensable to making risottos, only made its way into print in 1891, when Pellegrino Artusi published his seminal cookbook, Science and the Art of Cooking Well. It includes three recipes for making Milan’s signature dish, with recipe number 2 including rice, butter, beef bone marrow, onion, ‘good’ white wine, saffron and parmesan. Recipes 1 and 3 omit the beef bone marrow, white wine (though Marsala is used in number 3) and parmesan. Artusi, with his characteristic sense of humour and concern for those with delicate stomachs (there is an entire appendix dedicated to this subject in his book!) describes recipe number 2 as ‘more complicated and heavier to digest… but more flavourful’. I couldn’t agree more. Here’s a recipe, inspired by Artusi’s, Bigazzi and Grasso’s, for making a rich, creamy and aromatic risotto alla milanese.
Risotto alla milanese
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 40 g butter
- 40 g beef bone marrow, minced
- 320-380[i] g Arborio, Carnaroli or Baldo rice
- ½ glass white wine
- Beef broth
- 0.5 g saffron threads[ii]
- 60 g Parmesan or Grana Padana cheese, freshly grated
- Heat broth in a pot.
- Pour a ladleful of broth into a bowl and place saffron threads in it.
- In a pan, melt 20 g of butter with bone marrow and onion. Leave to cook over low-medium heat until onions are translucent.
- Add rice and increase cooking heat for two minutes or until rice is coated in butter, bone marrow and onion mixture.
- Add white wine, let alcohol evaporate and add enough broth to cover rice mixture.
- Reduce heat, leave rice to simmer until liquid dries up and add more broth and bowl with saffron threads.
- Leave rice to simmer and keep adding more broth when liquid dries up.
- When rice is creamy and tender (but still a little bit al dente!), season with salt and stir remaining butter and freshly grated cheese into rice mixture.
- Cover rice and leave to rest for 3 minutes before serving.
[i] If you are planning on having more than one course for your meal, I’d recommend smaller portions and using about 320-350 g of rice. If you’d prefer to have larger serving sizes, it’d be best to use 350 – 380 g altogether.
[ii] Avoid using saffron powders. The result is just not the same!