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Saffron Risotto... also known as... Risotto alla Milanese

Updated: May 24, 2021

Risotto is one of my favourite Italian dishes, may be because Milan is my hometown, and it was in the plains surrounding Milan, in the Po Valley, that rice became widespread towards the end of the 14th Century, having been first introduced to Italy by Arab merchants in the Middle Ages.

Another theory is that rice travelled from Sicily to the Northern regions of Italy along with saffron. Milan was under Spanish rule for almost two centuries and one of its most celebrated dishes, Risotto alla Milanese, combines the rice and saffron, for which the area was known. Certainly, as the word saffron is often argued to come from the Arabic word for 'yellow', a Middle Eastern influence is attributed to the dish.Jewish merchants also seem to have created a way of cooking rice with saffron, Riso col zafran, and to have taken this recipe to Venice.

In fact many stories surround not only the provenance, but also the origin of this regional dish, with one to seeming to set a precise date for the invention of Risotto alla Milanese: 8 September 1574. The many versions of this account assert that in this period, amongst the aristocrats and other wealthy individuals, it was fashionable to add a pinch of gold to food at special banquets in order to bring good luck.

Pharmaceutical properties, too, were attributed to gold such as diners' health was thought to benefit from its addition. Valerio di Fiandra, a Belgian glass maker commissioned to work on the Duomo di Milano - Milan Cathedral - was celebrating his daughter's wedding on 8 September 1574. One of his apprentices, who had been using saffron in his colour work on the cathedral's glass, decided to add the spice to the rice served at his master's daughter's wedding in order to colour it 'gold' as the family could not afford the precious metal. There are many variations to this story, one of which sees Valerio di Fiandra object of a joke by his apprentices who put saffron into the rice. The mockery backfired, though, as the addition of saffron was commended by the guests who enjoyed the novelty.

Risotto alla Milanese still to these days retains its distinctiveness as a part of Milanese cuisine.

Recipe taken from:

Versatile Cooking & Living Italian


Grazia Giuliani

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