The Gallic or Celtic tribes of the Po Valley were the first inhabitants of today's Lombardia to have left a long lasting mark in such places as Bergamo, Como and Milan or Mediolanum.
To understand Milan's premier gastronomic dish, you must understand the city and wider territory. The local food traditions have always been closely linked to the River Po valley and the wide flat plain which produces abundant meat and dairy products.
Butter always dominated in cooking especially for frying and to also make fillings and desserts. The ever present pot of broth boiling on the stove gave rise to the popualrity of dishes requiring many hours of preparation such as stews and soups. This also created a whole culture of using every part of an animal; tripe, braised veal shanks (ossobucco), liver etc
Veal was consumed here more than anywhere else in Italy. Prices were lower thanks to the large number of farmers producing high quality meat and the supply chain was very short. The midollo or bone marrow is essential an ingredient in authentic risotto alla milanese.
Another fundamental element is the zone of Lomellina, home to Italy's best rice. Dried pasta and olive oil based dishes only really appeared in the post war boom period, imported from south Italy by migrant workers. Hence, rice as a key element in local cuisine. Our book of historical recipes from Milan lists 13 specific risotto types.
Milan is, of course, the fashion capital of the world. The capital of the region of Lombardia is knwon to everyone as a shopper's paradise and perhaps the city boasts the finest collection of designer shops in Europe. But, navigating through the many shopping districts is a little easier said than done. With so many options available, it is important to know what you are looking for.
For the season's latest designs
Quadrilatero della Moda - Literally meaning "Quadrilateral of Fashion," this district boasts the most lavish and refined shops in the city.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele - This beautiful galleria is reputed to be one of the world's first shopping malls. Inside you will find various elegant restaurants and designer stores. Right outside the galleria, in piazza Duomo, is La Rinascente - Milan's premier department store, spread throughout 8 floors.
Risotto allo zafferano, together with the classic cotoletta alla milanese steak, is almost an obligation if you find yourself in Milan. This dish of rice with saffron was invented in 1574 for the wedding banquet of the daughter of a master glassmaker who was working on the city's Cathedral.
Saffron was used to produce the yellow colour in many artworks of the period and the cook for the occasion wanted to pay homage to the father. Many tests were needed to get a palatable tint, but his idea was such a success that the yellow rice became very popular and remianed one of the most caracteristic dishes of the city and region.
The classic ingredients are onions, grana padana cheese and beef marrow. In 1891, Pellegrino Artusi in his 'La Scienza in Cucina and l'Arte di Mangiare Bene', mentions three variants of the risotto alla milanese, from lighest to richest and, since 2007, the dish has been formally recognized by the Milan Municipality as a De.Co. (Denominazione Comunale) together with Panettone, Ossobuco, Cassoeula and Michetta bread.
“For me Milan is the most beautiful place on earth”. No, I'm not quoting myself, but Stendhal. Nevertheless, both of us have found the city to be at the heart of a refined epicureanism which represents the Lombardy region.
While Milan hums and roars with business, it seems the cows are working overtime in the region's mountain meadows providing luscious milk for cheeses such as like Taleggio, Mascarpone, Gorgonzola, Grana Padano, as well as fresh Bitto, Crescenza and Stracchino. Rice and corn are even grown to feed the region's passion for risotto and polenta.
The 'St. Augustine Route ' is a pilgrim route in Northern Italy which takes in the area of Brianza and Monza near Milan,which connects 25 Marian sanctuaries and locations dedciated to St. Augustine. The faith route in fact highlights sites such as his home in Cassago together with a great number of icons and shrines and sanctuaries.
The beauty of the route however is also that the only way to can do it is by foot or bike and passes along some beautiful relaxing and peaceful places you wouldn't guess to find only a few miles distant from big towns. The route is divided into three itineraries: from Brianza to Milan, from Milan to Pavia and then towards Genoa.
Notwithstanding the glam and colour of Europe's finest 'ready-to-wear' fashion scene, Milan may seem pretty grey at times. But if you know where to go there are oases of incredible art and imagination from museums, galleries and permanent exhibitions.
First and above all, the 'The Last Supper' at the Cenacolo Vinciano, Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, 2. The masterpiece by Leonardo in the small convent dates from 1497 is compulsory viewing and compulsory booking as we discovered to our cost.
You can't just turn up and wait in the queue, you have to book in advance. Make sure you do it at least a month before online or telephone +39 02 89421146. Frustrating? You bet.
Mantova is a fabulous place to visit and we go along with Torquato Tasso writing in 1586 following his visit to Lombardia: "This is a most beautiful town worthy of travelling a thousand miles to see it'". So what are you waiting for!
1. The Dukes Palace
Palazzo Ducale is really a town in the shape of a palace and was built to compete with the major European courts of the 13th to 14th centuries. It is 34,000 square meters of lanes, squares, courtyards, gardens and well preserved rooms housing priceless masterpieces. Not least the 'Camera dei Sposi' sumptuously frescoed by Andrea Mantegna with Emperors, Kings and crowds of people. horses and dogs. In fact, the ruling Gonzagas were great animal lovers and even built a dog's courtyard by a lakeside wing of the complex. You can still see a gravestone to their beloved 'Oriana'.
'Bitto' is a wonderful Alpine cheese used in a lot of the cooking in the high Valtellina mountains. There are dedicated cheese festivals and fairs every October in Morbegno or Sondrio, officially titled 'Mostra del Formaggio Bitto e Fiera Regionale dei Prodotti della Montagna Lombarda' or 'Formaggi in Piazza'. They are showcases for the many small producers of bitto and other traditional cheese in Lombardia.
The River Po is at its widest near the town of Cremona in Lombardia, roughly the middle of a navigable stretch in the region running from Pavia to Mantova. Look to hop on and off visiting little known places with perhaps a guided bike excursion thrown in. First stop on a boat trip from Cremona will usually be the mooring at Motta Baluffi.