RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity.
The risotto, especially the Risotto alla Milanese, cannot be understood without first examining the history of its key ingredients: rice and saffron.
Rice is a staple to more than half of the world’s population, with two schools of thought on its domestication and cultivation.1 Some scholars claim that its origins lie along the Pearl River Valley in China, where evidence shows that rice was first domesticated approximately 13,500 years ago.2 More stories of the spread and cultivation of rice emerged in the millenia that followed; between 5,000 BC and 6,000 BC, rice spread to Japan and Korea through migrant farmers.3,4 Other scholars argue that rice, alongside other cereals, was first cultivated by the Indus Valley civilisation at the foot of the Himalayas.5 Alexander the Great, after his Asian explorations in 400BC, brought rice back to Mesopotamia, Europe, and into the aegis of the Ottomans and the Arabs.6 It was the Arabs and Moors who then brought rice into Spain and Italy in 711. Then, the Romans used it only as medicine. 14th century Cisterine monks were the first to grow rice with the aim of consuming it.7 In 1475, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan, noted rice’s high yields and formally introduced rice cultivation to the Lombardy plains of Italy. The region was conducive to the growth of short-grain rice given abundant flatlands, ideal humidity, and readily available water.8
Saffron’s journey is nowhere near similar. Its value (the natives of Abruzzo, Italy, where Italian saffron is produced, called it “Red Gold”) made it the subject of piracy and theft. Found inside the Crocus sativus flower, 90% of today’s global saffron supply is controlled by Iran. However, in the 14th century, there were multiple trade centers for saffron; these included Nuremberg, Germany and Basel, Switzerland.9,10 There are multiple theories of how saffron first arrived in Italy. One theory is that it was brought to Abruzzo from Spain in the late 15th Century— at the height of the Spanish Inquisition— by a priest, Santucci, who correctly thought that Abruzzo’s climate would be conducive to the Crocus sativus’ growth.11 Another theory suggests that the crusaders returned from Asia Minor with crocus corms and began growing them in Italy, France, and Germany.12 Yet another theory proposes that the Moors— North African nomads— introduced saffron to parts of Southern Italy in the course of their conquest of Europe in the 8th century.13
The creation of Risotto alla Milanese (risotto with saffron) is best explained by legend. It goes that Zafferano (saffron), an apprentice to Master painter Valerio of Flanders in 1574, loved saffron so much that he added it to everything, including his paint. Valerio nibbed Zafferano that he should add saffron to food too, which he did to the risotto appetiser at Valerio’s daughter’s wedding.14 The dish was well-loved, marking its creation. The recipe for this dish, however, was only first officially documented in 1809, where rice is “sautée(d) in butter, beef bone marrow, onion and then moistened with hot broth in which saffron is dissolved”.15 In 1929, “Milanese chef Felice Luraschi finally gives the dish its name, ‘risotto alla Milanese giallo’; his recipe calls for rice, fat, beef marrow, saffron, nutmeg and stock, flavored at the end with grated cheese.”16,17
Our research on rice cooked in broth unearthed a multitude of analogues to the risotto. The Spanish paella, the Chinese porridge, and the Japanese zosui stand out as rice cooked in vegetable or chicken broth and other ingredients. Persian saffron rice also deserves a notable mention despite not being cooked in a broth because it is flavoured with saffron and mixed with milk, making it a close relative to the Risotto alla Milanese.
Children, SOS, et al. “Rice.” Rice. Wikipedia. Accessed December 17, 2019.
The page is hosted by the McGill School of Computer Science, and is a 15 volume encyclopedia targeted at school-going children who need a working knowledge of their academics. The information in the encyclopedia has been fact-checked both by Wikipedia and other volunteers from SOS Children. An independent study done by Nature found the encyclopedia on the McGill site to be accurate.
“History of Rice Cultivation.” Ricepedia. Accessed December 17, 2019.
Ricepedia is the product of a collaborative research between the International Rice Research Institute, AfricaRice, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. It is intended to be an authoritative depository of information related to rice history, cultivation, and trade.
Rice and Wine – Our farm. Accessed December 17, 2019.
This site is run by Massimo and Beatrice Marinone, who own a rice farm in Lombardy, the historical site for the first mass cultivation of rice in Italy. They come from generations of farmers, and use techniques studied over generations to grow rice over approximately 3 hectares of land.
“National Institute of Crop Science (Republic of Korea).” 국립식량과학원. Accessed December 17, 2019.
The National Institute of Crop Science is a part of the Rural Development Administration of the Government of the Republic of Korea. Their research is aimed at enriching rural agricultural capacity by understanding Korean rice history as well as advanced in cultivation technologies, with the aim of invigorating rural local economies.
Fulton, April. “The Secret History of the World’s Priciest Spice.” Saffron’s Secret History, From Production in Iran to Cleopatra. National Geographic Magazine, May 3, 2017.
The National Geographic is one of the oldest magazines in the world and its publications have covered a wide range of subject matter on the human experience and nature. This particular piece on saffron traces the history of saffron from Iran and beyond.
Written by Arjun Jayaraman.
8Cai et al., 2013. “The Puzzle of Italian Rice Origin and Evolution: Determining Genetic Divergence and Affinity of Rice Germplasm from Italy and Asia”. PLOS One.