Origins: The Sweets of Milan - #126

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

The province of Lombardia, at the base of the Alpine mountain range, forms the center of Italy’s northern border.  Lombardia got its name from the Lombards, a German tribe that invaded Italy in the 500s.  And invasion has been a serious problem for the area ever since.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the 700s Charlemagne came into the neighborhood and set himself up as king.  Then Barbarossa arrived and sacked the place.  In the 1500s the French took over, followed by the Austrians, and then the Spanish.  Then a second period of domination by the French under Napoleon and finally a second period of domination by the Austrians.  Lombardia didn’t actually become part of Italy until 1859.  A difficult history in terms of power and politics but very tasty in terms of what each of the invaders brought to the Lombardian plate.

Today, Lombardia is the third-richest province in Europe, and Milan, its regional capital, is the country’s financial center.  Milan is well-known as a focus for banking, communications, fashion, and publishing.  But it’s also the heart of an important agricultural area, and the source of some of Italy’s best cooking.

The Spanish arrived in the middle of the 1500s and during their two hundred years of rule they introduced rice-growing to northern Italy, along with the recipe which eventually became risotto.  The Spanish also imported saffron.  Together these two ingredients produce Risotto alla Milanese, one of the most traditional dishes of the city.  The Spanish also brought in Cassoela, a dish of braised pork, sausages and cabbage.  The Milanese consider Cassoela as one of their great comfort foods.

The Austrians took over from the Spanish in the early 1700s, and you can see their influence in a dish like Costoletta Milanese, a pounded and breaded veal chop with the bone in, sautéed in butter.  Very similar to the schnitzel dishes of Austria and Germany.

And when the French House of Savoy took a turn in the kitchen they left their Brioche recipe with the Italian bakers.

The Milanese took the pastries of France and Austria and invented a shop that is a combination bakery, pastry shop, candy store and coffee bar.  And they’re one of the great pleasures for both local residents and visitors.

And in response to the mid-day rush of a modern commercial center, the Milanese have adopted the sandwich, which they’ve modified to meet their own idea of what a quick lunch should be.

Other classic recipes from Milan include Minestrone alla Milanese, a vegetable soup that has become a favorite throughout Italy...

Osso Buco alla Milanese, braised veal shank cooked with garlic, parsley, and lemon zest...

Bollito Misto, a collection of boiled meats and one of the great winter dishes.

Polenta, made from corn meal, is Italy’s answer to grits.  It’s served as a soft mush or dried and cut into blocks, and then sautéed.

The cows of Lombardia give excellent milk which is used to make butter, which is in turn used as for much of the cooking instead of oil.  The local dairy farmers also produce a wide selection of cheeses; their most famous is a fresh Gorgonzola.

Those are some of the traditional dishes for the cooks of Milan, and the place to get the ingredients for those recipes is an area around the Via Spadari, and the Via Victor Hugo.  This is one of the best market districts in the world.

And this is Antonio Piccinardi.  In Italy he’s well known for his books and magazine articles on food and wine, including a recent guide to the restaurants of Italy.

BURT WOLF:  What a place!

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  This one is the oldest place in Milano.  It’s more than one century old.  People from Czechoslovakia came here, opened the shop more than a hundred years ago.  It was a small shop and now it’s the biggest one.

BURT WOLF:  Lots of prepared foods; ready to eat.


BURT WOLF:  Beautiful salmon...

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  Fresh salmon... That’s octopus.

BURT WOLF:  Octopus!

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  A big octopus.  They are very, very tender now.

BURT WOLF:  And a Russian salad?

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  A Russian salad, yes.

BURT WOLF:  Is this before or after the Revolution?

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  After the Revolution.

BURT WOLF:  After the revolution.  And truffles!

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  Truffles, yes, that is in season now.

BURT WOLF:  520,000 Lira...?

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  Yes.  For a kilo.

BURT WOLF:  That’s $1,500 a pound!


BURT WOLF:  Why would somebody pay $1,500 a pound?

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  Because they are crazy, I think.  Because that’s a lot of money.

BURT WOLF:  At $1,500 a pound, whether I’m crazy or not, I want to be able to judge the quality.  How do you judge the quality of a truffle?

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  Well, first of all, the perfume; it’s the most important.  And then the scale; you see the size, the big size, they are kind of round.  And these ones, more expensive, come from Piedmont, Alba.

BURT WOLF:  Alba.  So it’s the size...


BURT WOLF:  ...the smoothness...

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  ...the smoothness...

BURT WOLF:  Could we get a smell?

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  Yes, of course.

BURT WOLF:  Do they charge for a smell?


BURT WOLF:  First smell is free?

ANTONIO PICCINARDI: (orders truffle in Italian)

BURT WOLF:  Okay... Very intense perfume.


BURT WOLF:  It’s about three dollars worth of smell now.

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  Yes, it’s enough now.  Otherwise it’ll be more expensive.

BURT WOLF:  What are those called?


BURT WOLF:  Alkikinger.

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  It is a kind of seed and fruit together.

BURT WOLF:  Let’s just show people what that’s like.  May I have one of those?

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  (Requests alkikinger in Italian)

BURT WOLF:  I want to show everyone what this is like.  Okay.  This is somewhere between a grape and cherry...?

ANTONIO PICCINARDI:  A grape and cherry, yes.

BURT WOLF:  See?  Very unusual.  Very good.  I only did this so you could see it.

Italy is famous for its sweets, both its confections and pastries, and there are historical reasons for this notoriety, reasons that go back for almost a thousand years.

For thousands of years, honey was the primary sweetening in the human diet.  And during those years, it became a symbol for goodness and purity.  For centuries, honey lived its sweet life without competition.  And then, in the 11th century, things began to change.  Sugar arrived from the east, and western food has never been the same.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  We know that for at least 2,000 years sugar has been in use in both the Near East and the Far East.  And the Arabs brought it to Sicily and Spain during the 700s.  But nobody in Europe really paid much attention to sugar until the time of the Crusades.  The Crusaders got a really good look at the stuff in Tripoli and very soon thereafter it was being imported to Europe by the traders in Venice.  But for over four hundred years, it was rare, it was expensive, it was used only as a spice or a medicine, and only by the very rich.

Nevertheless, from the very beginning of its use in Europe, we can document an increase in the number of recipes using sugar.  Our sweet tooth had begun to grow.  And when sugar production got started in the Caribbean, the sugar business took off.  Suddenly there was a clear increase in the use of sugar in place of honey.  As sugar became more and more available, and at a lower and lower price, the general public began to use it as much as possible.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Sugar made them feel that they were eating like a king.  And sugar became an important item of international trade, which was never the case with honey.  Sugar was big business, and it was a sweet deal for the governments that taxed it.  Sugar became the first luxury to end up as a mainstay in the diet of an entire continent.

But even in the early years when sugar was coming into Europe as a rare and expensive spice, the Italians were developing pastry and candy recipes that used sugar as the sweetening agent.  The Italians also began to develop an international reputation for their skill with sugar.  They were so well thought of in this area that up until the last century it was the custom for wealthy households to employ Italian pastry cooks and confectioners along with their French chefs.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Many of the early European specialists in pastry and confectionery were from northern Italy.  They had learned about sugar from the Arabs who were living in Sicily and from the Crusaders who brought it back here in the 1100s.  They also had easy access to the spices that were coming in through Venice.  One of the earliest recorded examples of their skills deals with a recipe for a cake called Panettone.  There are lots of stories about how Panettone got started but the most popular is set here in Milan in 1490.

A young nobleman falls in love with the daughter of a baker named Toni.  To impress the girl’s father, the young man disguises himself as a baker’s assistant and goes to work in Toni’s bake shop.  While he’s there, he invents a sweet, delicate, dome-shaped yeast bread made of flour, eggs, milk, butter, raisins and candied fruit.  The cake becomes wildly popular and people come to the bakery from far and wide to buy what is called Pan de Toni, which translates into English as “Toni’s bread.”  The young man becomes a hero to the father, the marriage takes place, and everyone lives happily ever after.

For many years Panettone was a traditional Christmas gift given by the businessmen of Milan to their employees.  Today it is a favorite cake throughout Italy and eaten throughout the year.

And there are a number of other Italian pastries that are developing an international audience.  In addition to Panettone there is Pandoro, Panforte, Torrone and the cookies of Sienna.  And each comes with their own folklore.

Pandoro, which means “the bread of gold,” originated in the city of Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet.  Some historians believe that in the 1400s, when the Venetian Republic was using recipes to display their wealth and power, Pandoro got started as a cake that was covered in gold leaf.  During the 1700s, when Venice was not doing as well, Pandoro evolved into a Christmas cake in the shape of a tree with a powdered sugar star on top.  It’s a rich cake made with eggs, butter and sugar.  Today it’s no longer confined to the Christmas season and often comes to the table as a dessert stuffed with ice cream, topped with fruit, or drizzled with a rum sauce.

Next is Panforte -- made from candied fruits -- mostly orange and lemon -- almonds, spices and honey.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The story of Panforte got started in a nunnery in Siena.  In order to take a census of the local population the head of the nunnery asked everybody in the neighborhood to bring in a cake made from spices and honey.  The nuns liked the result, made it an annual event and eventually the recipe became standardized into what we now call Panforte.  The most popular version is called Margherita and was first produced in 1879 to mark a state visit of Queen Margherita of Savoy to the town of Siena.  I’ll bet you didn’t know any of that.  And I hope it improves your appreciation of Panforte.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Just about everything on the Italian menu comes with a story.  One of the most unusual is the tale of Torrone.  On October 24th 1441, Bianca Maria Visconti married Francesco Sforza.  These two came from the most important families in Milan and the wedding was a major social event.  The bride’s dowry contained an extraordinary collection of things -- including the city of Cremona just outside of Milan.  I love that.  “Marry my daughter and I will give you this nice little city as a wedding gift.”  The mind boggles.  So Sforza gets Cremona, and the bakers of the city commemorate the event by making a candy in the shape of the tower.  Actually the tower’s considerably bigger than this, this is just a scale model.  It’s made from almonds, and honey and whipped egg whites that have been baked for hours.

Big hit at the wedding.  And the guests who had come from all over Europe began asking for samples of the Torrone to take back home.  These days the tower is somewhat modified in form, looks more like the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, but the confection is more popular than ever.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Italians are also master cookie bakers.  It seems that during the middle ages when the monks were in the monasteries transcribing illuminated manuscripts, they were taking regular breaks from their drawing boards to work on cookie recipes.  Can you believe that?  And many of those recipes still exist and are produced by bakeries.  They’re usually placed in rather elaborate packages and are actually available around the world.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I tell you, those monasteries offered some great meal plans.  The Benedictines developed Benedictine.  The Chartreusians developed Chartreuse.  The Cistercians had one of the great wine businesses in the world.  And the guys here in Italy were developing cookie recipes.  No wonder every time I see a contemporary painting of a monk in a monastery he looks particularly well fed.

In the area of sweets, two that stand out are the Colomba and the filled Easter eggs.

The Colomba is a yeast cake made with butter, egg yolks, milk, sugar, orange peel, and almonds.  It has a soft and delicate texture, a golden crust, it always comes in the shape of a dove, and has been associated with Easter for many centuries.  It is a traditional dessert at Easter time.

The Colomba is said to have originated as a result of the Battle of Legnano, which took place just after Easter in 1176.  Things were not going well for the Milanese as they defended their city against an attack by Barbarosa... until  three doves flew out of a nearby church.  The birds appear to have flown an air-support mission that dropped bad luck on Barbarosa and delivered victory to the Milanese.  The cake reminds Milan of this triumph.

Filled candied eggs are another Easter tradition in Italy.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Easter is a celebration of rebirth.  The rebirth of the sun.  The rebirth of the growing season.  The rebirth of Christ.  The egg is a symbol of rebirth and when it is filled with a sweet surprise it is also a symbol of the sweet surprise of resurrection and the sweet surprise of everlasting life.

The next part of Italy’s sweet life deals with chocolate... a subject that has more to do with matters of the flesh than of the soul.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Chocolate is a New World food that was first shown to Europeans when the Mexican emperor Montezuma gave a sample to the Spanish explorer Cortez.  When it got back to Spain it was held as a court secret for over a hundred years inside the royal household and the churches.  Until a group of traveling monks got their hands on some of it and brought it back to Italy, where it was mixed with sugar and spice and everything nice that was being imported by the traders in Venice.

Chocolate in the form of candy became an important part of Italian confection.  It shows up in a number of famous forms.  Two of the most popular are Baci and Gianduiotti.  Gianduiotti is a mixture of chocolate, cocoa powder, sugar, and hazelnuts and it’s always presented in this distinct shape.  It was introduced in 1852 in the northern Italian city of Torino in the district of Piedmont.  The chocolate is named after Gian d’la duja, a symbol of the struggle for freedom and independence that was fought in the Piedmont at the end of the 1700s.

Baci is the Italian word for “kisses,” and it has been applied to this candy since 1907.  Young Giovanni Buitoni had been sent by his family to set up a candy factory in Perugia. Luisa Spagnoli was the product developer.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  They fell in love but were forced to keep their relationship a secret.  They exchanged their messages of love by wrapping notes in the chocolate samples that they sent up and back between them.  Today Baci contains a message of love in every package to commemorate that relationship.

The final chapter in the book of Italian sweets contains the biscotti, the amaretti and the cantuccini.


The baking of biscotti in Italy became important during the 1600s when the Venetian navy began searching for foods that would not go bad at sea.  They realized that dried cookies would be perfect and set up a Biscotti Procurement Office.  I would have liked to have worked there.  During the 1800s the manufacturers widened their audience, in more ways than one, by marketing their biscotti to the upper classes.  They designed all of their packaging to attract the rich and famous.  Biscotti, by the way, is not the Italian word for “biscuit;” it means “twice baked.”

Amaretti are light, crisp confections made from egg whites, sugar and the ground kernels of apricots.  They were invented in 1789 to surprise the Bishop of Milan, who was surprising the people of Saronna with a surprise visit.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Cantuccini are almond cookies that were originally developed in Tuscany but are now popular all over Italy.  Like biscotti they are twice-baked.  You take cantuccini dough and you roll it out into a tube, bake it, take it out of the oven, then slice it along the diagonal to get little disks like this.  They’re laid out on a tray and baked a second time.  Biscotti and cantuccini tend to come to the table at the end of a meal to be taken with coffee or dipped into sweet wine.

This is Milan’s Hotel Principe di Savoia.  It opened in 1927 and was designed as a new type of hotel.  There had been luxury hotels for tourists, and there had been efficient hotels for business travelers.  But the Principe was the first hotel designed to meet the needs of the traveling business executive in surroundings that were luxurious.

Today the Principe di Savoia is part of ITT Sheraton’s Luxury Collection, and the original objectives are still being pursued.  The main bar looks like the winter gardens that were popular at the turn of the century -- a courtyard enclosed by a dome of glass.  The Cafe Doney, serving pastries and an afternoon tea.  The Galleria Restaurant, for more formal dining.  These environments worked in the 1920s and they still work.

The executive chef is Romano Resen and today he’s making two of the traditional desserts of Milan.  The first is a sweet soft custard known as Zabaglione.

Romano starts by putting five egg yolks into a copper bowl.  Five heaping tablespoons of sugar are added.  Then three ounces of sweet Marsala wine.  Those ingredients are mixed together, at which point the bowl is set over a saucepan of simmering, not boiling, water.  You don’t want to cook the eggs; you just want to heat the mixture as you whisk it into a custard.  That will take about twenty minutes.  When it’s ready, it is served in a cup with some soft cookies for dipping.  The cookies are called Savoiardi, and they are like small ladyfingers.  An alternative way of presenting the zabaglione is to take a slice of the Italian cake known as Panettone, cover it with strawberries, pour the zabaglione on top and heat all of that under a broiler for two minutes.  It’s hot stuff.

The second recipe is for Tiramisu, a layering of custard and cake that has been moistened with rum and espresso coffee.

The recipe starts with three egg yolks going into a mixing bowl, along with two tablespoons of sugar.  Then a half teaspoon of vanilla extract, and the juice of half a lemon and a tablespoon of rum.  The rum is optional.  But a half cup of the creamy soft Italian cheese known as mascarpone is not.  This is the key to the dish.  Whisk those ingredients together.  Then blend in a cup of whipped cream and two egg whites that have been whipped until they stand in peaks.  Be gentle when you whisk in the egg whites, you don’t want to beat out the air that you just beat in.  A piece of sponge cake or a slice of the Italian cake known as Pandoro is sliced into a square that is about two inches by two inches and one inch deep.  That’s sliced in half and one piece is set into a mold.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Now, if you don’t have a square pastry form like this, you can take a tuna can, cut out the top and the bottom, wash it carefully and use that to make the form.

Then a mixture is made from some espresso coffee, a little sugar and some Marsala wine.  That’s painted onto the cake.  A layer of the egg mixture goes onto the cake.  Then another layer of the cake.  A quick paint job with the coffee mixture.  And a final layer of the egg custard.  Then an hour in the refrigerator to harden things up.  At which point a light dusting of cocoa powder goes on.  The frame comes off.  And a garnish of chocolate goes on.  Or is that my grandmother’s brooch?  No, just chocolate with a little gold on top.  Well -- that’s it.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s a look at some of the traditional foods of Milan and the sweet life of Italy -- please join us next time as we travel around the world.  I’m Burt Wolf.