Oh, what a thing of beauty! First, stiff grass-like leaves slowly emerge from the ground, and as they rise you can see the transparent papery case that binds them, so that the whole is like a little bright green paintbrush. Next the saffron flower emerges and unfolds its fine, elongated petals striated with mauve on mauve to reveal long vermilion threads. These contrast beautifully with the flower’s mauve petals and bright yellow and darker purple centre.
You need to harvest the three threads soon after opening and dry them. My two pots of saffron bulbs will only yield a teaspoon of dried threads, enough to make just one risotto Milanese.
Saffron, also known as Crocus sativus, is a plant that grows from a bulb and belongs to the family of Sword Lily. This is actually a spice with an intense aroma and is used extensively in a variety of cuisines. In fact, saffron is among the most expensive spices available.
This yellowish spice is obtained from the blooms of the species called Crocus sativus, which is widely called saffron crocus, The saffron crocus plant grows up to a height of anything between 20 cm and 30 cm and each plant produces a maximum of about four flowers. Each flower of this species has three bright crimson stigmas that are located far away from the point of attachment of a carpel. In conjunction with the stalks or styles which are connected to the stigmas to the plant hosting them, the dried out stigmas are mostly used in a variety of cuisines in the form of a seasoning as well as coloring agent.
DON’T take a tourist gondola ride in Venice unless you’re prepared to pay EURO 80-100 per gondola for a 40 min ride. These are official rates so don’t get taken for a ride by shady gondoliers who charge random prices. On a budget, try hopping a Traghetto, one of the water taxis used by locals to cross the Canale Grande. The ride will be shorter, but the boats are similar except that tickets will cost around 5 EURO.
DON’T expect the “Italian” food served in other countries to actually be served in Italy. Italian food is VERY regional. It’s also seasonal. Try local specialties, e.g. Genoa for pesto; Naples for pizza; Bologna for Bolognese sauce and filled pastas like ravioli, tortellini, lasagna; Milan for risotto and Ossobucco alla Milanese; Rome for Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Spaghetti all'amatriciana, and lamb. Gnocchi, bresaola, polenta dishes, and Tiramisù are found all over the country, but they’re native to North Italian regions like Lombardy and the Veneto. Prosciutto/Parma ham is most commonly associated with central and northern Italy. Oh and Americans, NO PEPPERONI PIZZA (lol).
DON’T tip, no matter what they tell you abroad. Tipping is not obligatory or common in Italy and can be an insult. However, tourist-savvy service people may have heard that other nationalities (especially Americans!) are genetically programmed to tip everything from waiters to performing rabbits, so the cheekier ones might try to work you for some spare change. Unless they gave you the best service in the history of the planet, resist. People earn a living wage so there’s absolutely no need to tip.
DON’T ask your waiter for Parmesan to put on your seafood pasta unless you want to see a grown man cry. One of the holiest commandments of traditional Italian culinary etiquette is that cheese and seafood never, ever mix. Only very recently have certain cheese/seafood pairings cropped up - i.e. ricotta with sea bass, gorgonzola with clams - but this is considered very avantgarde;a purist won’t touch such dishes. Also, for the love of Saint Peter, don’t let an Italian see you cutting spaghetti with a fork and knife or roll it on a spoon.
Eat Your Way Through Europe By Casey Hatfield Chiotti
When I travel, I follow my nose—and it rarely steers me wrong. It has taken me to a bakery making rustic loaves in a wood-burning oven in the Dordogne, a vendor by the sea grilling fresh turbot and king prawns in Morocco, and down a narrow street in Venice to find a perfect trattoria. I also try to find an in-the-know local (bartenders are great resources) and pick his or her brain. That’s how I ended up at a restaurant at the base of a castle, eating handmade pasta in Tuscany.
There’s no better way to get to the heart of a culture and a place then through its food. Here is a list of eight must-have dishes and delicacies in Europe to help you get started.
Waaaaaay back in 2004, I was a junior in college going into my spring semester. I decided to study abroad in Florence, probably one of the best decisions I ever made. I met two of my favorite ladies, who are still two of my favorite ladies 8 years later. I had more adventures than I could list, and the best food of my life. It’s the time in my life that inspired me to want to learn more about food and cooking.
One of the first trips we took in Italy was to Milan. We were young and inexperienced travelers, and decided to just “wing it”, and go to Milan without any sort of plan. It made for some really funny stories, mainly about getting trapped in the world’s tiniest, most rickety elevator.
Cait and I, finally arriving at an acceptable hotel.
One of the first sights we saw in Milan.
My favorite thing about Milan was the risotto. They make it with saffron, and usually it had some veggies and shrimp in it. It remains my favorite risotto of all time, but I hadn’t tried to make it until recently. It was very, very worth the price of the saffron.
If you love risotto (and who doesn’t??) I would definitely recommend trying this recipe!
Saffron Risotto (Risotto Milanese)
makes 4 servings
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into ¼-inch dice
2 medium zucchini, diced (optional)
1 teaspoon saffron threads
3 ½ cups chicken stock, hot
2 cups arborio rice
½ cup white wine
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for sprinkling
½ lb of cooked shrimp, thawed if they were frozen (optional)
In a 12 to 14-inch skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened and translucent but not browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the zucchini. Meanwhile add the saffron to the stock, stirring to infuse. Once the onions are translucent and zucchini has cooked for a few minutes, add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon until toasted and opaque, 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the wine to the toasting rice, and then add a 4 to 6-ounce ladle of the saffron-infused stock and cook, stirring, until it is absorbed. Continue adding the stock a ladle at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed before adding more. Cook until the rice is tender and creamy and yet still a little al dente, about 15 minutes. Stir in the butter and cheese until well mixed. Add in the shrimp, and cook a couple minutes until warm. Portion risotto into 4 warmed serving plates, serving with extra cheese.
Thanks for taking a trip down memory lane with me! Now go eat some risotto. :)