Rice fields in the Italian
province of Vercelli
The most important moment in the history of a dish with its own unmistakable mystique.
AT THE BEGINNING
What’s Risotto alla milanese today, at the beginning, was a rice or otherwise spelt soup prepared with broth.
“Riso Sabbath col zafran” – “Sabbath rice with saffron” was eaten by the Venetian Jews. According to the American authoress, Claudia Roden, Risotto alla milanese is a direct descendant from that dish. She bases her theory on Giuseppe Maffioli’s book, La cucina veneziana (Venetian Cooking), in which that author, among other things, traces “the tradition of making risotto with any and every sort of vegetable” back to the Jews. According to an other American writer, Clifford A Wright, “Riso col zafran” was a sort of saffron pilaf, known by the Jews and Arabs of medieval Sicily who travelled to the North of Italy”. As well as Maffioli, Wright cites among his sources Alberto Denti di Pirajno, the author of “Siciliani a tavola: itinerario gastronomico da Messina a Porto Empedocle” (Sicilians to the Table! a gastronomic itinerary from Messina to Porto Empedocle.)
It’s certain that in this year, in Sicily, rice was associated with yellow, as in the recipe for Riso or Farro (Spelt) alla Ciciliana listed by Messisburgo in his “Banchetti, composizioni di vivande et apparecchio generale” (Banquets, the Preparation of Food and Dining in General) (Ferrara, 1549), a yellow rice but without saffron. Sicily lies at the foundation of Risotto alla milanese. In 2004, the Milanese “Corriere della Sera” newspaper reported a legend according to which “the servant of a family from Palermo that had moved to Milan attempted to cook a rice ball but wasn’t able to give it shape and thus the yellow rice was born”.
Bartolomeo Scappi publishes “L'Opera dell'Arte del Cucinare” (The Work of Art of Cooking), in which appears a “Lombard rice victual”, consisting of boiled rice flavoured in strata with cheese, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, cervellata (an old Milanese cold cut, flavoured and coloured yellow with saffron) and pieces of capon. This dish was the forefather of the Risotto alla milanese that, according to Massimo Alberini, “preceded by centuries Naples’s sartù and Piacenza’s bombe, however little they like the fact.” (Corriere della Sera, 5.12.1997)
“The legend gives a exact date to the birth of Riso alla Milanese; 8th September 1574” is found in the Milan City Government Resolution of Recognition of Communal Denomination, for the traditional Milanese “panettone,” “michetta,” “cassoeula,” “risotto” and “ossobuco”. “That date had been set for the wedding of his daughter by the Belgian master glazer Valerio di Fiandra, who was working on the stained-glass windows of the Duomo, Milan’s cathedral, and for whom it apparently had a special meaning… During the wedding dinner appeared a rice dish coloured with saffron, a material that the crew of Belgian glazers, following Master Valerio, used to add to different colours to bring about particular chromatic effects. The rice prepared in that manner, perhaps as a joke, was enjoyed by everyone just as much for its flavour as for its colour; in those times pharmacological qualities were attributed to gold and, when this metal was lacking, to yellow substances”.
In his “Cuoco Galante”, Vincenzo Corrado, a Benedictine monk and great Neapolitan gastronomist cites a recipe for yellow rice cooked in stock with egg and cheese.
Antonio Nebbia, in his book “Il Cuoco maceratese” (The Cook from Macerata), a Central-Italian town in the Region of Le Marche Region, is the first to propose “sautéing the rice, after having let it soak in water for some hours”.
In the “Oniatologia, ovvero discorso de' cibi con ricette e regole per bene cucinare all'uso moderno” (The Discourse on food with recipes and rules for good cooking in the Modern manner), published in Florence, as Eugenio Medagliani tells us that we find a recipe “to make Milanese soup” in which to the rice boiled in salted water is added a good piece of butter and flavoured with cinnamon”.
“The anonymous Milanese L.O.G. in “Il cuoco moderno” (The Modern Cook) presents a recipe called “riso giallo in padella” – “yellow rice in a skillet”, which indicates that the rice is to be placed in sautéed butter and onions and “let to become golden brown to the point of being well toasted.” “To the rice – establishes L.O.G. – are to be added cervellato and marrow, and then is to be bathed in broth, in which saffron is to be dissolved.”
Francesco Cherubini, in his Milanese-Italian Dictionary, says that the rice must be “flooded” with good broth. Medagliani points out: “One begins to catch a glimpse of the approximate guidelines for the preparation of risotto alla milanese; however one is still at a considerable distance from the true concept, that is of 'letting it simmer in a good broth, which is stirred in a little at a time'”.
The famous Milanese cook, Felice Luraschi, published “Il Nuovo Cuoco Milanese” (The New Milanese Cook), in which “riso giallo” – “yellow rice” becomes “riso giallo alla milanese” complete with butter, saffron, ox marrow and grated grana cheese. (meda)
Pellegrino Artusi features Risotto alla milanese, in his “La Scienza in cucina e l'arte del mangiar bene”. In the seventh (1903) of the innumerable editions of this book of recipes there are two for risotto, the first without wine and the second with the addition of marrow and white wine. Artusi notes that the latter is heavier on the stomach but it is more flavourful. According to Medagliani, “the addition of wine gives an acidity that helps remove the marrow fat, which is more difficult to dissolve in the mouth than butter, from the palate, and furthermore gives the risotto more substance and rounds out its flavour”.
AT THE TURN OF THE XX CENTURY
Giovanni Cenzato, a Milanese journalist and playwright, interpreting the Milanese palate wrote: “Risotto has to be well fatted and soaked, intense of herbs and brazen of flavour”. “And it is just this robustness that is the characteristic of Milanese cooking and wow to the one who tries to do away with it! And this same robustness is wedded to the honesty of this food, an honesty which is derived from its very simplicity”.
Giuseppe Fontana, head chef of the mythical Milanese restaurant Savini from 1905 till 1929, published “La Cusinna de Milan” (The Cuisine of Milan), in which appears the recipe for Risotto alla milanese in verse. At the moment of adding the cheese, chef Fontana says to Gina, the ideal interlocutress, who is cooking: “Gratta giò el granon” – “Now grate the granon.” He was talking about Grana di Lodigiano, Granone, the progenitor of all the Italian Grana cheeses, including Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, which had probably been used from the beginning on.
The years of autarchy. Mussolini’s Italy felt the brunt of the sanctions placed upon her by the League of Nations for the invasion of Ethiopia. Rice enjoyed a moment of splendour and the regime encouraged its consumption. A risotto was featured in Petronilla’s book of recipes, now a symbol of the economic cooking of that time, Petronilla was the pseudonym for Dr. Amalia Moretti Foggia della Rovere. The recipe calls for the sautéing of the onion to the point of blackening – a heresy, but it indicates the removal of the largest pieces – for the addition of a little pepper and for grana that is “Lodigiano.” And in order to make it “luxurious”, Petronilla suggests, probably with Scappi's Lombard victual in her mind, putting “in a pan butter and (once having cleaned and cut into pieces) sweet-bread, veins, crests and livers; then covering the entire dome of your yellow rice with these exquisite innards.
The great Italian writer, Carlo Emilio Gadda, publishes the article “Risotto Patrio” in “Meraviglie d'Italia” (Italy's wonders), whereby he established some of the dish’s cornerstones, beginning with the type of rice to use, that is large-grained Vialone.
Anna Gosetti della Salda publishes “Le ricette regionali italiane” (Italian Regional Recipes) on 2000 pages that then became the reference work for Italian regional cooking. Here can be found, according to Roberta Schira, that which most approximates the Perfect Recipe for Risotto alla milanese: never parboiled rice, its toasting obligatory, obligatory is also the onion, brought slowly to translucence and not sautéed on a high heat, successively removed from the heat or stirred, the marrow and the broth. The wine is optional; the saffron can be stigmas or in powder form but the mantecatura, as is called the last stage of the preparation, which consists of removing the risotto from the heat, of leaving it to repose for two minutes and of stirring in the final butter or olive oil and the cheese, and the “all’onda” (see Dictionary) consistency may never be substituted.
Gualtiero Marchesi launched his “riso, oro e zafferano” – “Rice, gold and saffron” the most modern version of risotto, immediately copied around the world. As Marino Marini remembers “at the last moment, he added four pieces of gold leaf to Carnaroli risotto”. There was no broth – there was water in its place – and the onion was sweated in the butter and then filtered.
Florence Fabricant on the Nation's Restaurant News spoke of the “mystique of risotto” and told how, since the beginning of the ‘80s, in Italian restaurants in the U.S.A., risotto, and more than any other one risotto alla milanese, had won popularity at the cost of fettuccine all'Alfredo and tortellini alla panna. In 2001, Beth Panitz, in the April 2001 issue of Restaurants USA, expressed her recognition that risotto was an extremely popular Gourmet Comfort Food
Risotto alla milanese, along with other types of risotto, reached the New Frontier of the Bella Cucina Italiana in the world: Asia. Hong Kong, Tokyo and then Bangkok, but also then the other great Asian cities such as Singapore, Beijing and New Delhi. There has been a new generation of Italian chefs, who have studied and worked in Italy, to carry it out there; many of them are members of GVCI. Risotto traces a fundamental path in the history of Italian cooking outside Italy, which, definitively, no longer is that cooking imposed by the Italian emigrants, by improvised cooks.
Risotto is granted the Resolution of Recognition of Communal Denomination (De.Co.) by the City of Milan as a typical Milanese product together with panettone, michetta, cassoeula and ossobuco. In Italy the De.Co. is a guarantee, stemming from a law granting the authority to Town and City Halls to establish discipline in the evaluation of the activity of the traditional production of foodstuffs. The great Italian gastronomist, Luigi Veronelli, was a serious paladin of the De.Co. The same year, Luca Gaggioli, the editor of “Ristorarte”, launched Giallo Milano – Yellow Milan, a project to re-evaluate the gastronomic and cultural roots of Risotto alla milanese.