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The secrets of Lombardy's cuisine

Risotto alla milanese, stuffed pasta, cotechino, ossobuco and panettone among local must-eat

The secrets of Lombardy's cuisine

Claudia Astarita

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There is a legend behind the origin of the most famous dish in the Lombard gastronomic tradition, risotto alla milanese. In the second half of the 16th century, the construction of Milan cathedral was in full swing, and had been for the previous two hundred years. Among the many workers employed was a group of Belgian craftsmen with the job of making some of the stained-glass windows. One of them had been nicknamed Zafferano (saffron), due to his habit of adding a pinch of saffron to the glass, with surprising chromatic results. The master glazier often made fun of him for his obsession, quipping that sooner or later he would even start putting saffron is his food. The young man took him at his word and when the master glazier's daughter got married, he arranged with the cook to have saffron powder mixed into the rice at the wedding banquet. He wanted to play a joke on him, but after initial shock, the guests were delighted with the innovation.

Putting legend to one side, the wine and food tradition of Lombardy has always been influenced by the historical events which have marked the region. Dominated over the centuries by the Spanish, French and Austrians, Lombardy boasts a varied cuisine full of subtle nuances. Even though the presence of the great metropolis of Milan and its international outlook has meant that the region has been subjected to the effects of gastronomic globalisation, there are still many restaurants where you can rediscover the real flavours of Lombardy. Alongside rice, there is also room for pasta in the classic Lombard menu. There is a great tradition of stuffed pasta, with a wide variety of fillings, including meat, vegetables and cheese. An example is casoncelli from the Bergamo and Brescia areas, made with spinach, eggs, cheese, amaretti biscuits and breadcrumbs.

Anyone who spends a holiday among the mountains of Valtellina, a splendid place for winter skiing and for outdoor activities in summer, must try pizzoccheri, short buckwheat tagliatelle served with Savoy cabbage, abundant butter and stringy cheese, or polenta taragna(also made with buckwheat flour).

A legacy of Medieval country cooking is cotechinoa large salami to be eaten cooked, while Spanish influences are behind cassouelaa stew which uses the cheaper cuts of pork and crispy Savoy cabbage. Boiled meats,stews, grills and roasts, together with chicken, turkey and goose have an important place, and there are also many dishes of humble origins, such as zuppa di trippa (stewed tripe) and ossobuco.

For the Lombards, cake means above all panettonea classic Milanese Christmas tradition which also has its own fascinating legend. It is said that at the court of Ludovico il Moro, Lord of Milan, an enormous banquet was being held on Christmas Eve, which was supposed to end with a magnificent cake, prepared according to a secret recipe. By mistake or due to an oversight, the cake was burnt. While the head chef was in a state of panic, a kitchen boy called Toni took the leftover paste of the burnt cake, added candied peel, spice, eggs and sugar, and made a new cake. It did not look particularly appetising, with an appearance rather like a flat bread. Nevertheless, it was arranged on a large plate and taken to table where, after the diners' initial perplexity, it turned out to be a great success. Duke Ludovico congratulated the head chef and "pane di Toni" became the traditional Christmas cake of the city of Milan.

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