Risotto Milanese is pillar of the Northern Italian cuisine, whose origins are blurred in history and legend. Brought by the Moors and Saracens after they settled in Europe, rice was first introduced in Sicily as early as the 13th century. From there, it spread to the Naples area and later to the Po Valley in northern Italy, where it found the ideal conditions to be grown: flat lands, abundance of water, and humidity - perfect for growing the starchier, shorter grain rice that lent itself so well to slow cooking, and hence risotto.
It was in Milan where the rice met its delicious destiny. Milan had been under Spanish rule for almost two centuries (hence the similar evolution of paella in Spain), and rice had become a staple. Slow-cooking also dominated the culinary landscape of the region, with Ossobucco a long-held favourite and still today they are more often than not served together.
One of the most famous risotto is no doubt risotto alla Milanese. There is of course a story attached to this, it is Italian after all. The legend has it that origin of this famous dish started as a joke played in the year 1574. The Duomo di Milano, the magnificent Gothic cathedral, was being built, and a young apprentice named Valerius was in charge of staining the decorated glass for the windows. Everybody was teasing him because he appeared to have added saffron to the pigments to obtain a more brilliant colour. Tired of the teasing, he decided to return the joke and added saffron to the rice to be served at his master's wedding. The rice turned out so good that the idea spread immediately throughout the city and became the popular dish we know today.
Who knows if it’s true - it doesn’t matter, risotto all Milanese is a tribute to Valerius and we can only thank him for his mischief which gave us the beautiful subtlety of saffron's flavour with it's zinging yellow colour in a dish of rice.
This short grain rice, arborio being the one we are most familiar with, lends itself to so many glorious flavours and dishes, it is versatile, comforting and carries a little piece of exotic history in each tiny, magical grain. And, should there be any left over (not likely in my house), it can be made into arancini, which can be almost as sublime as the risotto it came from.
If you want to know how to create this dish, seemingly so simple and yet often frustratingly easy to mess up, and eat it as it is meant to be, then we will see you on Friday, at 7pm, at Spike Island Cafe.