The true origins of Milan’s legendary “Risotto alla Milanese”

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An Italian fairy tale to tell your children before bedtime!

Many are the stories which lay claim to revealing the true origins of Milan’s legendary “Risotto alla Milanese”.

One legend in particular seems to give an especially convincing – and tasteful insight into the origins this delicious – and typically Milanese saffron rice dish.

According to a manuscript of the Trivulziana Library in Milan, the recipe’s birth takes us back to the 1570’s, in the days when saffron was used to dye stained glass for Cathedral windows.

Mastro Valerio di Fiandra, a Flemish stained glass artisan who created the Saint Elena windows of the Duomo di Milano was one of the artisans who worked at the Duomo di Milano, and he had an assistant, who’s nick-name was “zafferano” – saffron.

Zafferano owed his name to a peculiar habit of his: he would add saffron to all his pigment mixes, claiming that it made his colors brighter. Mocking him, Mastro Valerio one day told him that at this rate, soon he would be adding saffron to all their food too!

Zafferano did not take this light-heartedly – and in September 1574 – at Mastro Valerio’s daughter’s wedding he told the cook to spill saffron in the risotto – which at the time was cooked in plain butter.

Imagine the guests’ surprise when all of a sudden they saw their risotto yellow! But soon everyone realized how delicious this ingenious trick was, and the risotto was all the more appreciated for its beautiful aspect – yellow representing wealth and happiness.

The risotto was an instant favorite and the whole city started adopting this fashionable recipe: before anyone knew, the whole of Milan was eating Zarrefano’s yellow risotto, which was a combination of the city’s most iconic symbols, risotto and the Duomo.

Others claim that saffron was already in use in medieval kosher cuisine, and that this Milanese plate was surely imported by Jewish immigrants from Southern Italy.

In a similar vein, another legend tells us that a Sicilian family’s cook living in Milan wanted to make “arancini” but lacking the correct ingredients, reduced herself to making yellow risotto instead of serving it in the traditional arancino round shape.

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