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The complete foodie guide to Lombardy

The complete foodie guide to Lombardy

by Great Italian Chefs 10 October 2018

Meat, cheese, butter and rice are the most common elements of Lombardy’s cuisine, and its hearty, luxurious dishes are famous throughout Italy. Get to know more about the ingredients, flavours and recipes that make Milan and Lombardy such a hotbed of fine dining.

People travel to Lombardy for a variety of reasons. Milan alone is a European capital of fashion, art, design and finance, while the mountains to the north offer skiing in the winter and stunning walks in the summer. The great lakes of Como, Garda and Maggiore all fall within its borders, as does the mighty River Po, all of which make up for Lombardy’s lack of coastline. But while the sights, high-end fashion and business are vital to Lombardy’s identity, so is its food – which is some of the richest and most decadent in all of Italy.

It would be sacrilege to visit Milan without tasting its saffron-infused risotto or ordering a breaded veal shin, while Brescia, Bergamo and Mantua can each boast their own famous stuffed pastas. Rice and polenta dishes are enriched with the region’s famous cheeses and butter, while freshwater fish make their way onto menus in restaurants near the great lakes. Lombardy isn’t the place to go if you’re after bright fresh tomatoes, aromatic basil and other Mediterranean ingredients; instead, the food here is more like its German and Swiss neighbours to the north, with big, bold, hearty ingredients staving off the colder weather. A traditionally wealthy region, aged cheeses, expensive spices and prime cuts of meat take precedence – which is very good news for those who like eating out.

For an introduction to Lombard cuisine, look no further – we’ve gathered all the region’s most famous ingredients, products and dishes (with recipes) so you can become an expert in no time.

Ingredients and flavours

Meat

Being a rich, wealthy region of Italy, meat features much more prominently in Lombard cuisine than in the traditionally poorer areas in the south of the country. Veal, beef and pork are what you’ll usually find on restaurant menus, often turned into rich, hearty stews with the prime cuts reserved for more luxurious dishes. There are also lots of chicken and goose dishes, and the famous bresaola originates here.

Cheese

The lowlands around the River Po are perfect for rearing dairy cattle, which is why Lombardy is one of Italy’s most prolific cheesemaking regions and so famous for its butter. In total there are thirteen PDO-protected cheeses from Lombardy, including the likes of Gorgonzola and Taleggio, and Grana Padano even originated in the area before spreading into others. Lesser-known cheeses are fiercely protected by the local government, and while most are made from cow’s milk, there is the occasional goat’s milk cheese to be found too.

Fish

Lombardy is a landlocked region, but thanks to Lake Garda, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore, there are plenty of freshwater fish to be had. Perch, tench and pike are often simply grilled, or used to flavour risottos. More unusual species include agoni, a sort of freshwater sardine, and carpione, a salmon-like fish that’s endemic to Lake Garda.

Rice and grains

Huge swathes of Lombardy are covered by rice paddies in the Po Valley, which is why its risottos and other rice dishes are so famous. Polenta is another common side dish, often served creamy and soft with plenty of butter and cream to enrich it. Buckwheat is popular the further north you go in Lombardy, although it’s mostly used to make pizzoccheri pasta, but rice is certainly the most popular carbohydrate.

Pasta

As a northern Italian region, Lombardy relies on rice and polenta much more than pasta as a daily staple. However, it is still prevalent, often coming in the form of tortelli or stuffed pastas which are rich with egg, butter and cheese or served in meaty broths. In the northernmost parts of the area you’ll find pasta made from buckwheat, too, which has an earthy, nutty flavour.

Vegetables and fruits

Meat, cheese and other rich ingredients seem to take precedence over vegetable dishes in Lombardy, but that’s not to say they don’t exist. The fertile soils around the rivers and lakes in the region are perfect for growing crops, which is why so much rice and corn comes from the area, but don’t expect tomatoes and basil to appear everywhere like they do further south. Pumpkins from Mantova are nationally renowned, as are Breme onions from Pavia. Lombard fruits tend to be more popular, with apples from Valtellina and Mantova’s pears both IGP-protected and lemons grown around Lake Garda particularly prized.

Wines

Lombardy is most famous for its red wines made from Nebbioli grapes and the sparkling wine Franciacorta, which is tipped to become the next Prosecco. Despite being a northern region, the lowlands create a Mediterranean climate which is ideal for growing both grapes and olives, so you can find decent whites, reds and rosés along with the more famous varieties.

Famous dishes

Risotto alla Milanesa

The most famous dish to come out of Milan is also one of the most famous dishes from the whole of Lombardy – and it’s easy to see why. The striking yellow risotto is flavoured and coloured with saffron and Parmesan, two luxurious ingredients which were favoured by the wealthier classes of the region. Traditionally, the dish also contained bone marrow for extra richness, along with plenty of butter.

Veal Milanesa

The second of Milan’s three famous dishes is brilliant in its simplicity; a flattened bone-in veal cutlet dredged in egg and breadcrumbs before being flash-fried in butter. Known as cotoletta alla Milanese in Lombardy, it’s very similar to a German schnitzel – the perfect mountain food.

Ossobuco alla Milanesa

While veal cutlets are saved for breadcrumbing, the tougher parts of the animal are saved for stews. Ossobuco is internationally known, and sees veal shanks slowly braised in a sauce of white wine, vegetables, chicken stock and mushrooms until falling apart. To counteract the rich meat, a zesty gremolata is sprinkled over the top of the dish before serving.

Tortelli di zucca

The Lombard city of Mantua is famous for one thing above else – pumpkin-stuffed pasta. This dish is a perfect example of how sweet and savoury ingredients can come together to create something truly unique. Pumpkin is puréed before being mixed with spices, Parmesan, crushed amaretti biscuits and mustard-spiked candied fruits. The result is a true taste of Lombardy, and this dish can be found across the region.

Mostarda di frutta

Those aforementioned candied fruits are a speciality of Lombardy, and act as the perfect accompaniment to cheese and cold cuts. Spiking the fruit with mustard gives it a hot, savoury twist which contrasts with the sugar syrup. It’s a classic preserve that can now be found across Europe.

Torrone

Torrone is Italy’s answer to nougat, which is equally popular in Spain (where it’s known as torró). Torrone di Cremona – from the Lombard city of the same name – is regarded as the best in Italy; there’s even a nine-day torrone celebration held in Cremona every year. It has been made in Lombardy since the fifteenth century (although many believe it’s older than that, originally brought to the country by the Arabs) and is flavoured with toasted almonds, honey and vanilla.

Risotto alla Certosina

This intriguing risotto is a speciality of Pavia in Lombardy and was invented by monks living at the Certosa di Pavia monastery. Taking inspiration from the province’s two rivers – the Po and the Ticino – it contains crayfish, frogs and freshwater perch, which were caught along the riverbanks.

Casoncelli

This variety of stuffed pasta isn’t as famous as tortelli di zucca, but it is a close second. Most associated with Brescia, they are usually stuffed with meat, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, nutmeg and a reduced broth, although variations from Bergamo contain sweeter elements like amaretti and dried fruit.

Pizzoccheri

In Valtellina, a valley in northern Lombardy that borders Switzerland, buckwheat is an important staple. It finds its way into soups and broths, but is also ground into flour to make pasta. Pizzoccheri is one of the most famous buckwheat pasta dishes, with tagliatelle-like strips of pasta cooked with leafy greens, potatoes and local cheese.

Panettone

This incredibly famous festive bread originated in Lombardy, but is now made across Italy for export across the world. Studded and flavoured with prize ingredients such as candied fruit, almonds and honey, it is the most iconic symbol of Italian Christmas.

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