The complex historical events of Lombardy, its contact with various parts of Europe, the important development of this region which is based on work and private initiative, have all had an influence on the uses and customs of its inhabitants. It has also led to very different dietary and gastronomic habits in the various cities. Milan in particular, which is certainly the most open-minded Italian city and therefore less inclined toward provincialism, has opted for a cuisine in which specialities from various Italian regions are included with local dishes. These local dishes are exemplified by risotto with saffron, minestrone with various variations, ‘cassoeula’ (pork and Savoy cabbage stew), ‘costoletta’ (flattened, breaded and fried veal chop), ‘busecca’ (a tripe and giblet soup), ‘ossobuco’ (braised veal shank with the marrow bone) and Panettone, the typical Christmas cake that has conquered the world.
Cassoeula is typically a winter dish, nourishing and economical, and is ideal for people who don’t have time to eat during the day and need a meal which provides a lot of calories. Various cuts of pork (shoulder, pork rind, feet and ears) are cooked with Savoy cabbage, carrots, celery and onions. The legend telling the story of the origins of this dish is very interesting. It seems, in fact, that it goes back to the era of the Spanish rule of Milan, when a Spanish official became infatuated with a beautiful Milanese woman of the lower classes and he taught her the combination of pork and Savoy cabbage in cookery. The woman then went on to become the cook for one of the noblest families of the city and one day, to save her job, she risked preparing this new recipe for them. They liked the cassoeula immediately and it quickly became one of the most common dishes of the Lombard capital. Other typical Milanese dishes which merit mentioning are ossobuco, drawn from the rear hock of the calf and served on a bed of “risotto alla milanese” (risotto with saffron), “vitello tonnato’ (veal in creamy tuna sauce) and busecca, a tripe soup made mostly with giblets. Last but not least the characteristic “zampone alla milanese” (pork sausage stuffed into a pig’s foot) with onion, garlic and Parmesan cheese.
The presence of risotto in the cuisine of Lombardy is attested to even in Bartolomeo Scappi’s work dating from the 1500’s, which dwelled on a description of the recipe:
“To prepare a dish of Lombard style toasted rice with chicken, "cervellate" (a type of pork sausage often including pig’s brain, spices and saffron) and egg yolk.
Take the shelled rice in the manner described above and cook it in broth which has been prepared using capon, goose and ‘cervellate’; and cooked until it is firm. Take some of the rice and put it in a large terracotta or silver or tin plate, and sprinkle it with cheese, sugar and cinnamon. Place some pieces of fresh ‘butiro’ cheese and pieces of the capon breast and goose with the ‘cervellate’ cut into large pieces on it, and sprinkle again with cheese, sugar and cinnamon so as to create three layers. The top layer should be wet with fresh melted ‘butiro’ and sprinkled with the same composition and placed in a warm oven and left for half an hour until it takes on some colour, then sprinkled with rosewater and served hot. This rice can be arranged in another way: that is cooked as above, place some ‘butiro’ on the plate and place some slices of unsalted fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon and grated cheese. Place the rice on top of this, and on top of the rice place some fresh raw egg yolks, according to the quantity of rice, having already made holes in the rice to put the egg yolks into. On top of this add more slices of mozzarella cheese sprinkled with sugar, cheese and cinnamon and then cover with another layer of rice. In this way you make two or three layers, adding some butirro on top, place the dish in hot ashes, or in the oven as above, and serve it hot.”
Risotto finds a place of honour among our contemporaries in the pages of the great writer Carlo Emilio Gudala, who, in his work “Le meraviglie d’Italia” gives a long and detailed recipe for risotto alla milanese. In his recipe the following ingredients are considered indispensable: onion, beef broth (with carrots and celery), butter from Lodi and saffron. Added to taste, he suggests ox tail marrow, red wine from Piedmont and grated Parmesan cheese.
Even soups of Lombardy can already be found in the text of Bartolomeo Scappi, who gives the recipe for a Lombard soup still made today:
“To make a Lombard soup with meat broth. Take white bread cut into thin slices and remove the crust and put it in the oven or in the ‘testo’ (= earthenware dish or small oven for cooking food). Add fatty broth, made from beef, capon and cervellate, and place the bread in a plate and sprinkle with grated cheese, sugar, pepper and cinnamon. Place some slices of fresh buffalo mozzarella, or any fatty cheese that is not too salty, on top. Build three layers this way, wetting them with the above broth, which must not be too salty, until it is well soaked and cover with another plate and let it rest for a quarter of an hour in a warm place. Serve it hot with the ‘cervellata’ cut into slices and with sugar and cinnamon on top.”
But Scappi did not forget the desserts, offering the recipe for ‘morselletti’.
“To make morselletti, that is Milanese ‘mostaccioli’ (cakes made with cornmeal and sweet wine). Take fifteen fresh eggs and beat them in a casserole dish and pass them through a sieve with two and a half pounds of fine powdered sugar and half an ounce of raw anise seeds, and one or two grains of fine musk from a musk deer (= an animal which lives in central Asia). Mix this with two and a half pounds of flour, and beat all of this together for three quarters of an hour and beat it again. Prepare in advance sheets of paper in the form of lanterns or cake pans with high sides, with wafers inside without wetting them with anything. Put the batter in these lanterns or cake pans not more than one fingers-width full and immediately sprinkle them with sugar and place them in a hot oven. When the batter is flat and has lost its moisture and is solid, that is when it is like a ‘focaccia’, remove the cake pan or lantern and cut it immediately into slices two fingers-width wide and as long as desired. Put them back in the oven to toast, turning them often. Make sure the oven isn’t as hot as during the first phase and when they are well-dried remove them from the oven and put them aside since they are always better the second day than the first day and they last one month in their perfection.”
In no region in Italy has the difference from one city to another, from one area to another, been so marked as in Lombardy, from every point of view and naturally from a culinary standpoint as well.
The gastronomic picture of Lombardy is therefore a mosaic of the cookery of its provinces, which maintain their own characteristics in the vague relationship that, in certain aspects, they share.
Bergamo and Brescia, which in the past were ruled by the Venetian Republic, still carry the mark of the cuisine of the doges. In Mantua and Crema the proximity of Emilia can be tasted. Northern Lombardy preserves ancient recipes in Valtellina and Como. Remember that Como was the city of birth, in the fifteenth century, of Maestro Martino, author of “Libro de arte coquinaria” (The Book of Culinary Art). He knew no rivals amongst his contemporaries in the culinary art and the relative treatise where he put into action a clear and deliberate partition of the subject, with a meticulous eye to detail, and a moderate criterion in the measuring out and proportion of the ingredients.
The risottos are of great renown, from the yellow Milanese variety, the classic with saffron, to the one from Como with fillet of perch fish, from the Mantuan “col puntell” to the one with the ‘brianzolo’ sausage.
Among the first courses, the “pizzoccheri” (buckwheat tagliatelle) of Valtellina, the Mantuan “agnolini” (meat or cheese and herb ravioli), the “casonsei” (filled pasta) of Bergamo and the pumpkin ravioli and gnocchi of Como stand out.
The meat dishes include sumptuous boiled meats, the classic Milanese ‘costoletta’, the Northern Lombard ‘cassouela’, and the Valcuvian guinea hen cooked in a clay pot, fragrant stews and pot roasts.
The cheeses are the noblest in Italy and the wines have an ancient tradition, as do some famous desserts, like the “colomba pasquale” (dove shaped Easter cake) and “panettone” (a cylindrical Christmas cake made with candied fruit).
Mantua and Cremona, for example, developed a series of recipes influenced by their proximity to Veneto and Emilia-Romagna. Specialities of the cuisine of Mantua, which knew how to defend its popular and aristocratic traditions throughout the centuries, are the “riso e trigoni” or rice with water chestnuts, the “mariconde” or balls of cheese, bread crumbs and egg served in broth, and “agnoli ripieni” or ravioli filled with capon, cinnamon, cheese and cloves. The imaginative ravioli of Mantua are also memorable, like those filled with “amaretti” (macaroons) and pumpkin, the slow-cooked wild duck and the hare “alla cacciatora” (hunters’ style in tomato sauce). Cremona is famous for its mustard, the celebrated sauce made with pieces of candied fruit, mustard and spices, to serve with boiled and roasted meats. Cremona is also famous for its pork sausage, which includes real specialities like garlic salami. It is also famous for its “marubini” or ravioli filled with breadcrumbs, grana padano cheese and egg, served in broth with butter and cheese. According to tradition, the province of Cremona is also the birthplace of “cotechino”, the pork sausage usually served with lentils. So cotechino was born in Lombardy as a “poor” dish and then became an elite speciality, appreciated even outside the borders of the region. Among the most original recipes from the province of Cremona is cotechino in vanilla.
Bergamo and Brescia were obviously influenced by the gastronomic customs of the Venetian Republic, to which they belonged for an extensive period. Bergamo is the homeland of “polenta taragna” or polenta made with a mix of maize and buckwheat flour and mixed for a long time with a stick called a “tarello” from which it takes its name. “Polenta con gli uccelli”, casonsei and veal heart Bergamo style are also excellent. Polenta con gli uccelli, or polenta with birds, falls under the heading of desserts. It is a dome of sponge cake covered in sugar and maize flour with tiny chocolate birds on top.
Brescia remains gastronomically linked to the nearby Lake Garda. On the table of the “Lioness of Italy” freshwater specialities can be tasted, in particular fried fish served with polenta. Specialities of Brescia also include “ casoncelli” or pasta filled with spinach, egg, macaroons, cheese and the soft interior of bread. Remember also “riso alla pitocca” also called dirty soup, and other kinds of soups such as “brofadei”, “gnocarei” and “mariconde” (cheese, eggs and bread cooked in broth). The cities of Varese and Como bring clear signs of their proximity to Lake Como and Lake Maggiore to their tables: trout, perch, tench, freshwater shad and “missoltit” (dried fish reconstituted with vinegar). Fish is also used as a filling for ravioli. The eels from the Adda River are excellent. They are used to prepare eels Lombard style with its traditional condiment of dried mushrooms and anchovy fillets. There is no lack, however, of mountain dishes based on polenta and stews, pot roasts and game.
In Pavia, rice is plentiful on the menu, as are frogs and a soup of eggs and croutons called Pavian soup. In the areas of Sondrio and Valtellina, in the North of the region at the foot of the Alps, the gastronomic influence of nearby Switzerland is strongly felt. In Sondrio, the sausages, the salami (including the typical “bondiola” or pork and beef cooked sausage) and the liver mortadella are worth tasting. In Valtellina, famous for Bresaola, remember ‘pinzoccheri’ or tagliatelle of buckwheat and regular flours, cooked with potatoes, Savoy cabbage, leek and other vegetables and baked in the oven with “bitto” cheese (soft cow’s milk cheese) and ‘scemut’. Remember also “chiscioo” (an unsweetened buckwheat tart filled with cheese) and the typical “sciatt” fritters (buckwheat ravioli filled with ‘bitto’ cheese and grappa and then fried). The wines of the valley, highly prized reds such as Sassella, Grumello and Inferno, are excellent.
The unifying element in the cuisine of Lombardy is risotto, which, however, is prepared in a thousand different ways: with vegetables, sausage, freshwater fish, tench, perch and even with frogs. The legend circulating about the birth of the famous Milanese risotto with saffron is worth remembering. It tells the story, towards the end of the 1500’s, of a young apprentice glazier who was called to the capital to work on the restoration of the glass of the cathedral. The young apprentice had a strange obsession, that of putting a handful of saffron in the mixture for every colour to be used to paint the glass. His colleagues jokingly told him that he would end up putting saffron even in the plates he used to eat with. At the completion of the work, the marriage of the daughter of the master glazier and the young apprentice was celebrated behind the cathedral. Probably already drunk on the plentiful wine, the apprentice decided to make his friends’ prophesy come true and he scattered saffron on the rice to be served at the dinner. And so, according to tradition, the Milanese risotto with saffron, which quickly spread throughout the city and then Lombardy, was born. The excellence of the dish depends most of all on its correct preparation and particularly on the perfect blending of the rice with the initial sautéed onions and garlic.
In Pavia, “risotto alla certosina” is famous. It is prepared using the recipe of the monks, which requires a dressing of shrimp, mushrooms and peas. The monks themselves, however, out of respect for their rules, must eat it without butter. One of the recipes widespread in all the cities is that of “risotto in salto” in which leftover Milanese risotto is formed into patties and fried in butter. They are served hot and crunchy.
The production of cheeses typical to Lombardy, especially between the Alps and Ticino, is worth noting. The cows raised there provide first quality milk from which excellent derivatives are drawn, such as the butter that is the principal condiment in Lombardy. The cheeses are many and well known, so much so that they deserve separate treatment.
In the gastronomic tradition of Lombardy there are two traditional desserts which are widespread for religious holidays: the Christmas ‘panettone’ (a real symbol of Milan) and the Easter ‘colomba’. The “torta sbrisolana” (a cornmeal, butter and almond crumble cake), a typical dessert from Mantua, should also be pointed out.
The cuisine of Lombardy, therefore, is a varied cuisine characterised by foods from mountains and lakes, all of it tied to its geographical position, to various historical events and to the traditions of the surrounding countries. But most of all it is a cuisine lacking in the creativity inspired, as in many Italian areas, by poverty, by the need for large parts of the population to invent dishes from very little, flavouring them with greens, aromatic herbs, and with particular methods producing foods appreciated even outside of the economic context in which they originated. It is instead a cuisine based on the great richness of the agricultural products of the Lombard earth and on the economic well being that has always been a distinctive feature for a large part of the population.