Red gold, yellow joy, and what makes Milan’s most famous rice dish so special
Or Saffron Seduction
If you drive from Sulmona to L’Aquila, chances are you’ll pass through the town of Navelli, the historic heart of saffron country in the high rising around the Appennines largest mountain: Gran Sasso. Centuries as the source of some of Europe’s most prized saffron helped build L’Aquila into one of Italy most beautiful but lesser known art cities. L’Aquila is still beautiful today, although devastated and off-limits from the earthquake 18 months ago. Despite this tradition, the hair-thin red threads (the colour changes to yellow in food and dies) have only recently made it into the local culinary culture because it was too expensive for its’ growers to eat – you didn’t eat your livelyhood in these breathtaking but cold mountain valleys.
Some experts say that the variety of bulbs used, soil and specific climate help produce some of the best saffron in the world. At least everyone in Abruzzo says will tell you that – and so would Remy, the mouse chef from the movie Ratatouille if he wasn’t a fictional cartoon character.
Lo Zafferano is still probably the world’s most expensive spice, but it’s now within reach of most of our pocketbooks; the tenth of a gram (a tenth the weight of a paperclip) of powdered Navelli saffron needed for the recipe below can be yours for around ten euros if bought in locally here in L’Aquila or the surrounding midieval castle towns. If it costs much less than that, you know it’s fake.
Given this historical importance the town of Navelli – were my mother-in-law is from and where we still spend much of our summers – it’s not surprising that it’s one of the two local products featured in Navelli’s sagra (local agricultural feast). The other food is the town’s tiny but delicous mountain ceci (chick peas).
Navelli’s Pro Loco association (http://www.prolocodinavelli.it/ ) has been putting on the Sagra dei Ceci e dello Zafferano one the first weekend after Ferragosto (August 15th) for 33 years, even in the aftermath of earthquakes. And the Palio dei Asini, a send-up of Siena’s Palio where untrained donkeys run instead of trained racehorses has been a natural satirical draw for thirty years. My niece was part of the trio – boy, girl and donkey – that won this year.
While saffron helped build L’Aquila and many of internal Abruzzo’s most beautiful cities and towns, the locals never dreamt of eating it. So Italy’s the most famous saffron dish comes from the northern city of Milan. The following recipe, the one used at the Navelli’s “sagra”, is a gem for it’s simplicity and how it draws out the best from it’s ingredients.
Risotto alla Milanese – Risotto allo zafferano.
Risotto allo zafferano (otherwise know as Risotto alla Milanese)
500 g of rice (a little less than half a pound)
100 g of butter (about a quarter pound
1-fifth of a white onion.
50 g parmigiano reggiano, grano padano or another classic Italian grated cheese
1 envelope of saffron from L’Aquila (with a tenth of a gram of pure saffron)
a half pot of broth broth
Dice the onion and simmer in a spoonful of butter until lightly golden, then add the rise and stir continuously as you slowly add broth. In the meantime mix the saffron in a small cup of broth. When the rice is almost done (that is, the broth is almost entirely absorbed by the rice), add the remaining butter and pour in the saffron-broth mix. Sprinkle the parmesan on top just before serving. My wife Silvia’s trick is to add a tablespoon full of the saffron liquor that Navelli’s saffron cooperative sells.
For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com
This recipe was also included with four others on a guest post promoting George Clooney’s recent move “The American”, set mostly in some of the most beautiful corners of Abruzzo.