As it happens for the vast majority of traditional dishes, the origins of the risotto allo zafferano recipe are not well known. Today is a very typical dish from Lombardy, one of the biggest regions of northern Italy. We know that the Sforza dynasty introduced a modern cultivation of rice in the Milanese area at the end of the XIV century, so we can establish a foundation date for the risotto after this epoch.
To discover the very origins of this fascinating dish we have
to reach one of the Milan's historical risott giald". Hotspot: we're talking about the Castello Sforzesco, the main fortress of the Duchy of Milan, very interesting to visit if you wish to learn how Michelangelo created the modern art in 1500s (but this is not the right place to tell you this, go and google "pietà rondanini by Michelangelo" if you will). Well, where were we? Ah right! The Castello Sforzesco! Inside the Castle you can find an historical Library, the Biblioteca Trivulziana, that trasures many works from some of the greatest minds of humanity, like the Codex Trivulzianus by nothing less than Leonardo da Vinci. But since we're no Dan Brown at all, we'll focus in another work, from year 1574 that tell us a very interesting story, or a legend -who knows?-about the birth of the risotto allo zafferano, or, to say it in the milanese way, ". The legend tells us that a master stained glass artisan, called Valerius the Flander, that back then was working in one of Europe's most gigantic gothic project, the Duomo cathedral of Milan, was working on the stained glass windows, using a very expensive and exotic spice to create a brand new kind of shining yellow: Mr Valerius choosed to paint nothing less than the saffron!
One of Valerius' pupils was a painter that was so good at painting with saffron that was immediately nicknamed by his mates as "lo Zafferano", that is "the Saffron" in italian. At work, he was constantly mocked, and his detractors used to say that he would put saffron even in the rice that they used to eat at the cathedral yard. When the daughter of Master Valerius married another man, he -maybe for jealousy, maybe for a joke- put some saffron in the main dish at the marriage: the old times version of the risotto. The result was astonishing! Everybody loved it, an effect that surprised the Zafferano, Master Valerius' pupil.
So, the Duomo cathedral and the risotto allo zafferano, both symbol of Milan, are very closely related, how epical is that?
We don't know if things happened exactly like this, but this is for sure an interesting history dating back to 1500s! We know for example that there were Kosher dishes in medieval Jew cuisine that mixed the saffron with the rice, even if maybe is too much to affirm that they already knew the risotto or even the creamy rice. We know that after the Arab domination in Sicily, many Jew merchants reached southern Italy. Lombards and Jews were both knew (and feared) in the low Middle Ages as bankiers and tough businessmen, so they surely would have known each other and...maybe exchanged a recipe book, why not?
The first book when we can read a modern-days recipe for the risotto allo zafferano is the 1853 work by Felice Luraschi, titled "il Nuovo Cuoco Milanese" (the new milanese cook).
The risotto allo zafferano is usually confused with the risotto alla milanese, but it's not the same dish at all! The main difference is that the risotto alla milanese has no wine in its recipe but has bone marrow instead. These dish and many, many varieties of the risotto alla milanese and/or allo zafferano are to be found in the 1891 book from Pellegrino Artusi called "The science in the kitchen and the art of eating well".
Now, let's deal with the recipe. Ready?
Ingredients: (for some 4 ppl)
- 250 - 300 g. approx. of Carnaroli or Arborio rice (you can find out which one to choose here)
- 1 onion
- extra virgin olive oil (1 spoonful)
- 1 cup of white wine
- 1 liter of broth (in my case, veggie broth)
- 100 g. aprox. of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (recently grated if possible)
- 1 knob of butter
- 1 spoonful of saffron (in threads) or 1 dried saffron pack
1º- We prepare the broth, or we heat it up in case we've already did it. Pour a big spoonful of warm broth in a cup and put the saffron threads in it, stir it and let is aside.
2º- Put on heat the pan or the pot you've choosen to cook your risotto. I personally love the high pans, where the rice is easy to stir. Add the olive oil, and when it is very hot, you can add the minced onion that we've previously prepared. The onion shall be very golden brown, cook it for some 5 or 10 mins. You need the taste of the onion but you don't want the texture of it in your mouth.
3º- When the onion will be ready, add the rice. I told you some 300 grams, but I never do it this way. I do it in the same old way the taught to me in Italy:" un pugnetto per persona e uno in più per la padella", that is, a handful for each one and one for the pan. I'm usually put two handful per person because my fists are ridicolously smalls! It depends on your hands' size!
Keep on stirring the rice and the onion, with the help of a wooden spoon. This is a key step, since toasting the rice even for a couple of minutes impermeabilize the grain of rice, letting it cooking properly and still resulting al dente.
4º- After that, we add some white wine, a thing that will add some acidity to our risotto, something that will enhance the taste of our risotto. Stir it constantly, and when the wine will be evaporated, start adding the broth, little by little. Wait until each previous spoonful of broth has been absorbed by the rice before adding another spoonful, and do this as much is needed until the rice is ready. The cooking of the rice for the risotto usually takes around 18 minutes, starting from when we added the rice in our pan. So you know, this recipe needs calm and patience, never let your risotto alone on heat! keep on stirring, stir on, you'll see, it almost will become somewhat relaxing, nothern italian cuisine is a zen one!
5º- Some minutes before the 18 minutes we mentioned before, instead of pouring the broth, add the cup of saffron broth we put aside at the beginning. Our rice will immediately become golden yellow! Stir the rice once again and when the 18 minutes are over, turn off the heat and start the last phase, known as "mantecatura" of the risotto, that is, adding the butter and letting it become more and more creamy.
6º- With the heat turned off, add the butter and the grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, stir it to mix the rice and the new adding and let them melt well in the rice. Ready, Habemus risottum! It is usual to cover the pot or the pan with a cover to let it rest a little bit, but come on! Who can resist it?