By Zara McDowell
MILAN, Italy- If you could taste Milan in one bite, it would include saffron.
Saffron has become a Milan staple despite struggle in the beginning. The spice was well known and highly desired in Europe but the cultivation plummeted as soon as the Roman Empire was overshadowed in the 1400s. However, saffron was re-introduced to Italy after a nearly 300-year hiatus during the spread of the Islamic civilization. It’s now become a core part of Milanese food culture.
Saffron, a difficult crop to harvest, is expensive. The bright red “threads” are the stigma of the crocus flower and must be harvested on a sunny day when the flowers are opened and still fresh. I can only imagine the difficulty of this work. The spice retails for upwards of $5,000 per pound, making it more expensive than gold.
Prior to visiting Milan from our study-abroad home base in Florence, I researched traditional Milanese foods to ensure that I ordered them. Rissoto with saffron—Milanese style—kept coming up. The delicacy of the saffron threads doubles as a yellow food coloring agent as well as a spice for flavoring.
At Di Gennaro along the Milan strip of Via Santa Radegonda the waiter placed my dish of Risotto alla Milanese and a cappuccino on our dark wooden table that had been brightened with a red runner. I was pleasantly surprised at the intense and subtle bitter taste the saffron presented in the creamy, bright yellow risotto.
But saffron is not limited to savory foods in Milan. At La Rinascente at the Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s famous ten-story department store, 20 flavors of macaroons from Rinaldini, a world champion pastry chef, were neatly and ascetically lined up to please the eye.
“Vorrei un saffron macaroon,” I asked the young lady behind the Rinaldini station.
She placed my gold macaroon into a hot pink bag, plastered with Rinaldini’s name, costing 1,90 euro. The subtle spice of the saffron and the crunchy outside, yet creamy- smooth, melt-in-your-mouth center gave the macaroon an astounding Milanese taste.