The voyage that boiled white rice made in order to evolve into risotto and then into risotto “alla Milanese” with saffron, was not a brief one. Its invention is commonly thought to have its origins in 1754, when a Flemish glassmaker, who was working on the windows of Milan’s great Duomo, poured some saffron – which was used to colour glass – into a rice soup that he was making, turning it yellow.
The risotto giallo has become a provocative and much-discussed star (think of the Garbo or Dietrich of first courses), rife with ambiguity, and represents a uniquely Lombard fusion of two Eastern ingredients: rise and saffron. In the 1980s, the culinary cultural centre Altopalato, researched ancient texts and adapted them, with the help of talented chefs, into recipes that could be enjoyed even in contemporary times.
I described to my friend, the chef Gualtiero Marchesi, how important the presentation of dishes were in those centuries, especially with regards to their colours, whose shades were often obtained by vegetable juices, saffron, egg yolk, sunflower or heliotrope pollen. I told him how, after being cooked on the rotisserie, swans were covered in a sauce that rendered the skin golden and crunchy. The sauce was made from grated bread crumbs and saffron left to soak in wine, to which egg yolk was added. The fowl’s neck and head were then wrapped in gold leaf and offered to the banquet’s most esteemed guests.
I could tell from how he was listening to me, that Gualtiero’s mind was wandering as I spoke. He opened a drawer from his desk, took out a small bundle that he carefully unwrapped, and delicately arranged thin squares, about 8 x 8 cm in size, of gold. Or at least that’s that they looked like. My friend assured me that it was real gold that his friend, who was a picture framer, used for applying gold to baroque style frames. “I will cover the centre of risotto giallo alla Milanese with this fine square of gold leaf,” he exclaimed, clearly excited. From that time on, Gualtiero Marchesi’s risotto con foglia d’oro has become famous all over the world.