Millanese Acquerello Risotto (Risotto alla Milanese), Ikura and Bone Marrow
Risotto alla Milanese is a rendition of risotto which is just flavoured with saffron, and is arguably the most famous dish that originates from the Lombardy region of Italy. The Lombardy region of Italy is the richest of the twenty administrative regions of Italy and encompasses Milan, the second biggest city in Italy. It was here in Milan, that the Risotto alla Milanese was invented. The exact origin of this dish is unknown and is surrounded by many stories, some which contradict each other. The first known recorded instances of this recipe started appearing in books around the 1800s. Prior to this, recipes for cooking rice in Italy usually consisted for the rice being boiled, compared to the risotto we know nowadays, where rice is first cooked in a soffritto of onions and butter in order to coat each grain in a film of fat (known as tostatura), before deglazing the pan with white wine. From the recipes from the 1800s, we know that Risotto alla Milanese back then was cooked with stock slowly being mixed in, with the gradual addition of cervellata (a beef and veal sausage stuffed with cheese), and coloured with saffron. The dish today however, is made without the traditional sausage and is instead enriched with bone marrow.
The widely told story of how Risotto alla Milanese was invented begins with the construction of the Milan cathedral, now the third biggest cathedral in the world. In the 1700s, the daughter of Valerio della Fiandraleads (the painter of the great glass windows of the Milan cathedral), was getting married. During that time, saffron was widely used to colour stained glass gold as a symbol of prosperity. The story goes on to attribute one of Valerio della Fiandraleads’ assistants decided to surprise him by adding saffron to the risotto served at his daughter’s wedding, and the rest is history. This story is likely to be a folklore than has been spread by word of mouth over many generations and is unlikely to be true as records of the dish only appeared during the 1800s.
Rice first entered Italian cuisine in the early 1200s when the Moors (the muslim inhabitants of southern Italy), settled in Sicily. From here, the cultivation of rice spread northwards to the Po Valley river, which provided enough water for semi-aquatic rice to grow all year around. This spread northwards was made possible by the strong political connections between the two powerful royal families that ruled at that time, the House of Sforza in Milan and the House of Trastámara (Aragon) in Naples. As rice dishes evolved into risotto as we know it today, risotto started to be served as a first course (il primo). Risotto alla millanese however, is usually served together with ossobuco alla milanese (a dish of braised cross-cut veal shank) as a second course (il secondo).
As this dish is relatively plain, the quality of ingredients used in the dish matters even more in making a truly exceptional dish. The most common variety of rice used to cook risotto is Arborio rice, while Carnaroli rice on the other hand is usually considered more superior as it has a higher starch content which is vital in making a creamy risotto. Of all the different estates that produce Carnaroli rice, the most sought after Carnaroli rice is made by the Acquerello farm in the Piedmont region. The Acquerello rice farm was first started in 1935 by Cesare Rondolino and rose to fame due to its use of aging and heating techniques to produce rice of superior quality. During production, harvested grains are aged under temperature control for 1.5 years, with 1% of the grains being aged up to 7 years. This aging process allows the rice to develop a deeper and richer flavour similar to aging wine. After aging, the rice is unhusked and polished down in a process similar to polishing japanese rice for sake. In a process unique to Acquerello, the germ layer removed from the rice is not thrown away, but instead slowly heated up and gently mixed back into the rice grains, combining the nutrients contained inside the germ with the white rice. This produces a white rice that has the nutrition of brown rice, while also being enrobed with a layer of starch. This mean that when cooking Acquerello rice in risotto, one does not need to constantly stir while adding stock. The stock can actually be added all at once, with the vigorous mixing due to boiling motion of the stock being enough agitation to create a rich and creamy risotto.
Saffron, which is the key ingredient in Risotto alla Milanese, is the world’s most expensive spice, costing up to 7000 British Pounds per kilo, with Vanilla coming in as the second most expensive spice, costing up to 500 British Pounds per kilo. This can be explained by the amount of labour required to obtain saffron combined with its extremely low yield. Saffron is derived from the stigma (female part) and styles (male part) in the flower of Crocus sativus. The stigmas and styles are carefully removed from the flower and dried before being sold. As each flower contains 3 stigmas or styles, it takes as much as 300000 in order to produce a kilo of saffron. Thus making an extremely labour intensive spice to produce. This in turn has generated an underground industry of fake-saffron, using strands from turmeric flowers or bits of hay in an attempt to dilute genuine saffron in an attempt to increase yield. This is especially common in Iran, which is responsible for 90% of the world’s saffron production. Saffron production in Iran is made possible due to the low-cost of mainly female labourers, combined with a suitable sunny climate. Saffron itself grows best in the sun, with flowers grown in the sun producing lower quality saffron. However, saffron needs to be harvested in the early morning in order to protect the harvest from the heat and therefore workers start their days as early as 3 or 4 in the morning.
The taste of saffron is like hay-ish iodine caused by its two main chemical compounds, picrocrocin and safranal. Some people describe it as floral and honey like but in my opinion the flavour of saffron is hard to describe, with nothing that taste close to it. If you want to taste true authenticity in your Risotto alla Milanese, there really isn’t a substitute. Saffron of course, is more famous for the bright yellowish-gold colour that it impart in food due to the high concentration of the carotenoid pigment, crocin, it contains. Not all saffron is of the same quality, with the highest quality saffron being grown in the Navelli Valley in Italy’s Abruzzo region, near L’Aquila, as it as the high concentration of safranal and crocin. To get the most out of your saffron, it should not be added directly to a dish, but instead soaked in luke warm water in order to extract the flavour and colour from the strains before adding it to the dish.
My take on Risotto alla Milanese is the same base recipe you find everywhere, including the addition of bone marrow into the risotto itself, with the difference being the addition of additional bone marrow served as it is (not mixed into the risotto). This allows you to enjoy the flavour of bone marrow on its own and makes the dish more substantial to eat on its own without other dishes such as osso bucco. I also add some ikura (salmon eggs) on the side, as the burst of salty acidicness from the ikura helps balance out the bone marrow.
Millanese Acquerello Risotto (Risotto alla Milanese), Ikura and Bone Marrow
- 50g Grated Parmasan Cheese or Pecorino Romano
- 700ml Chicken Stock/Vegetable Stock
- 1 medium sized shallot
- 250g 7 Years aged Acquerello Rice (or normal Carnoli/Arborio Rice)
- 30g Unsalted Butter
- A dash of olive oil
- 100ml White wine
- 2 pinches Saffron
- Bone marrow still in bone (beef or veal)
- Red Amaranth as garnish
- First, add the saffron to warm chicken stock to infuse for 10 minutes.
- While the saffron is steeping, Mince the shallots as finely and evenly as possible, as evenly cut pieces will cook uniformly, preventing bits of the shallots browning faster than others.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Place the bone marrow in a tray and salt with salt and pepper before covering each bone marrow with tin foil. Bake for 10-15 minutes. Reserve some bone marrow in bone for plating the dish.
- To start the risotto, scoop out the bone marrow from the bones and add this to the butter in some olive oil, heat the mixture before adding the minced shallots to sweat.
- Once fragrant, add in the Acquerello Rice and toss in the butter for around a minute until well coated. (A process known as tostatura)
- Pour in the white wine to deglaze the pan and continue to cook until all the alcohol has evaporated (when you can no longer smell alcohol).
- If using Acquerello rice, pour in 600ml of stock (including saffron strands) into the pot and set to a rolling boil. Once most of the stock has evaporated, use a spatula to stir the rice to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning. Taste the risotto and add more stock if it is not cooked enough for your taste.
- If using any other rice, add in the stock (including saffron strands) one ladle at a time, only adding another ladle once the previous ladle has been absorbed into the rice. Remember to always stir the rice constantly. You do not have to add all the stock into the pot.
- Taste the risotto once in a while to see if it is cooked to you’re taste. If not, continue to add stock to the pot and cook until soft enough for your taste.
- The risotto is done when the rice grains are translucent and you can see a white centre inside each individual rice grain. This means the rice is al dente, and still has a bite to it.
- Just before the risotto is done, add in the parmesan cheese in 3 separate stages and mix till melted.
- Plate and serve the risotto with a tablespoon of ikura and a bone marrow still in bone at the centre. Garnish with red amaranth.
- Making your own stock at home can be incredibly time-consuming so feel free to use stock cubes at home. Some of the best chefs I know use stock cubes at home themselves.
- If you’re in Asia and can’t find risotto rice, sushi rice is a possible substitute for risotto rice.
- The point of stirring the stock constantly is to allow the friction between the rice grains to release their starch, causing the risotto to take on its classic creamy character.
- You do not have to stir the rice constantly if you’re using Acquerello rice as the agitation from the boiling is enough to cause the rice to release its starch.
- We cover each piece of bone marrow in tin foil the prevent the bone marrow from burning.
- The goal of cooking the shallots in the fat is to reduce the water content in the shallots and concentrate its flavour. We are not trying to caramalise the shallots so try not to brown them.
As Risotto alla Milanese is quite a rich and fatty dish, I would pair this dish with wines of high acidity that are lighter in style in order to balance out the weight of the dish. Wines without new oak would also be preferable to not drown out the taste of saffron. Sticking with regional wine pairings, for white wines I would suggest a Pinot Bianco with the not overtly fruity nature but high enough acidity to match the dish and bring out the flavour of the saffron.
For red wines, I would suggest a good Nebbiolo from Piedmont. Nebbiolo tends to be in a very light style similar to Pinot Noir from burgundy, with similiar notes of undergrowth and red cherries. The main difference however is that Pinot Noir has relatively low tannins while the tannins in Nebbiolo tend to be overpowering. However, with such a rich dish full of cheese, the tannins in the Nebbiolo would definitely pair well. When considering a Barolo vs a Barbaresco, I would go for the Barbaresco, which is typically harvested a fortnight earlier and thus would be slightly lighter in style. Old style producers of Barolo would also be recommended over new style producers who tend to use new french oak barrels compared to the traditional large oak botti which impart less oak flavour over many years of use. The strong oak flavour will overpower the taste of saffron. A Valpolicella from the Veneto region might just work with this dish as it can be light and fruity but I would advise against choosing a Ripasso or Amarone to pair with this dish.