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The Romantic History of Risotto Alla Milanese
Deliciously warming and flavourful until the last bite, Risotto Alla Milanese has earned its place as one of northern Italy’s most loved dishes. But how did this yellow, rice-based cuisine become so popular when neither saffron nor rice are native ingredients to Italy?
Let’s begin with the rice. It’s now widely agreed that rice was first domesticated in China's Lower Yangtze River region. In 2017, a group of Chinese researchers unearthed 9,400-year-old rice phytoliths – that’s the tiny microscopic particles found in plants – that showed signs of domestication from a site called Shangshan in Lower Yangtze.
The history of the first rice cultivation in Europe is a little murkier, with dates varying between the 8th and 12th century. According to a study published in MDPI, rice was introduced to Europe in the 12th century when the Moors brought the grain to the Iberian Peninsula. Rice then made its way across the Mediterranean to Italy. As stated in a PMC journal, the first record of rice being grown in Italy dates back to 1468 in wetlands near Pisa in Tuscany.
Over the next couple of centuries, rice cultivation in Italy expanded to the northern regions of Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto. Fast forward to present day and Italy is the biggest cultivator of rice in Europe, contributing 50% of rice production in the EU.
Rice soon became a staple Italian food, especially in the north where flat land and wet weather provide the perfect environment to cultivate rice. Risotto is a simple rice dish that’s typically served as a first course. Many different ingredients can be added depending on the season such as porcini mushrooms, pumpkin, or asparagus. However, it’s Risotto Alla Milanese that is the most well known across the globe. But how exactly did saffron, the world's most expensive spice, end up in risotto?
The legendary story of Milanese Risotto surrounds a master glassmaker, Valerio of Flanders, his daughter, and his assistant who was nicknamed ‘Zafferano’ due to his love of the yellow spice – it’s said he even used it to stain the windows of Milan Cathedral. When Zafferano and the daughter were set to marry in 1574, apparently Zafferano’s friends added his namesake ingredient to rice as a joke, accidentally giving birth to the now famous dish. While there’s no actual record of Risotto Alla Milanese from this far back, and you’ll find many different iterations of the story, I’m certainly happy to buy into the myth.
To enjoy the dish at home, you just need white onions, butter, carnaroli rice, white wine, chicken stock, grana padana cheese, and saffron. Firstly, prepare about 1 litre of chicken stock in a pot and keep it warm on the stove. In a separate pan, melt 50 grams of butter then add one very finely chopped white onion. Add some spoonfuls of the stock to ensure the onion doesn't dry out while it cooks. After about 10-15 minutes the onion should be clear and soft.
For the next step, add 320 grams of carnaroli rice to the pan with the onions. Carnaroli is starchy, short-grain rice that helps make the risotto sticky. Let the rice cook for a few minutes, just so that it turns clear. Add a teaspoon of saffron threads to 40 ml of white wine, then add both to the rice. Let the wine evaporate then cook the risotto for about 20 minutes on a low heat. Keep stirring and adding ladlefuls of stock to the rice to stop it drying out and to achieve a delicious creamy texture.
Once it’s ready, turn off the cooker and add salt, another knob of butter, and around 80 grams of grated grana padana cheese.
Serve the risotto generously with a dry white wine or a soft red that’s not too tannic, like a Barbera d’Asti from Italy’s northern Piedmont region. And of course, have some fresh bread on the table so you can enjoy every last morsel in the traditional ‘scarpetta’ way.