Lombardy is distinctive in its variations in culinary habits. For example, the sophisticated recipes of the Milanese contrast sharply with the more rustic dishes of the Alpine foothills and lakes. The latter are sometimes known as piatti poveri (poor food): devised over centuries, these employ imagination and often time-consuming techniques to make up for the lack of expensive ingredients. Risotto alla Milanese, on the other hand, golden yellow with saffron, is Milan’s most renowned culinary invention – and, it is said, only truly Milanese if cooked with the juices of roast veal flavoured with sage and rosemary. Ossobuco (shin of veal) is another Milanese favourite, as is panettone, the soft, eggy cake with sultanas eaten at Christmas time.
The short-grain rice used for risotto is grown in the paddy fields of the Ticino and Po valleys; other staples include green pasta and polenta. The latter – made from maize meal which is boiled and patiently stirred for around forty minutes, all the time watched with an eagle eye so it doesn’t go lumpy – is found all over northern Italy. It can be eaten straightaway, or else left to cool and then sliced and grilled and served as an accompaniment to meat.
From Cremona comes mostarda di frutta (pickled fruit with mustard), the traditional condiment to serve with bollito misto (boiled meats). Stuffed pastas come in various guises – for example, around the Po Valley tortelli alla zucca (ravioli filled with pumpkin) or around Bergamo and Brescia casoncei (ravioli stuffed with sausage meat). Veal is eaten hot or cold in dishes like vitello tonnato (thin slices of cold veal covered with tuna mayonnaise) and wild funghi (mushrooms) are everywhere in autumn.
Lombardy is also one of the largest cheese-making regions in the country. As well as Gorgonzola there are numerous other local cheeses: among the best known are Parmesan-like Grana Padano, smooth, creamy mascarpone (used in sweet dishes) and the tangy, soft taleggio.
Although Lombardy is not renowned internationally for its wines, supermarket shelves bulge with decent reds from the Oltrepò Pavese, and “Inferno” from the northern areas of Valtellina; while around Brescia, the Franciacorta area has earned plaudits for its excellent sparkling whites.