Anna Del Conte, author of the book “The Classic Food of Northern Italy” states that in a gastronomic sense, Lombardy is the most interesting region of Italy. There are 12 provinces in Lombardy, and a host of different cuisines. The overall cuisine of Lombardy has very much been influenced by history, when neighbouring countries ruled the area. Lombardy prides itself on some of the best dishes of braised meat, brought south by its former Austrian rulers, whilst the French taught the Milanese how to use butter and cream in their cooking methods.
Lombardy is renowned for its dairy products. Historically, butter was often used for cooking rather than olive oil (although this practice is changing rapidly with the widespread availability of delicious olive oils throughout Italy). Indeed, in days gone by people would speak of the ‘butter line’, which ran from the west to the east of Northern Italy. This “line” roughly followed the border of Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. North of this line, butter was the cooking fat, and to the south it was olive oil.
The ready availability of milk also makes Lombardy a prominent cheese-producing region. Some of the finest cheeses in all of Italy are made here – the “gutsy” or piquant Gorgonzola di montagna, an old-fashioned gorgonzola revered by cheese connoisseurs; the soft and mild “Bel Paese”; the creamy “Robiola”; and the runny “Taleggio”. Interestingly though, most people may actually fail to recognize another landmark Lombard cheese when they taste it. The creamy mascarpone from southern Lombardy does not resemble the UHT long-life version of it contained within the ubiquitous desert, tiramisu. The real mascarpone is only available during the winter, and must be enjoyed neat, in all its virgin purity.
Up to the Second World War, olive oil was only used by well to do families to dress salads (instead of the more plebeian rape seed oil or walnut oil). However, after the Second World War the walnut trees of Lombardy were felled to make enough furniture to replace the furniture destroyed during the war. Because of this, and out of necessity, Lombardy began to use more olive oil.
In the low-lying regions of Lombardy the cultivation of rice is also widespread. In the twelfth century AD an extensive system of water ways was initiated. It took nearly 300 years to complete, and involved the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, who played a considerable part in its design. It is often said that rice is eaten much more than pasta in Lombardy, and is an ingredient used widely used throughout the region. The large, yellow sweet peppers of Voghera are used to make one of the freshest and most colourful risottos in Lombardy. The world has also come to know risotto Milanese, with its lovely yellow saffron color. River shrimps are also used in a particular risotto dish. Pavia is well known for its “risotto con le rane” (Risotto with Frogs), and frogs are also fried whole (and thankfully headless) to form a crunchy local antipasto! Nowadays unfortunately the frogs and river shrimps are rapidly disappearing, with the latter surviving only in some private estates.
Fish is also abundant throughout the region in its rivers and lakes. Highly prized within Lombardy are tench, carp, pike, perch, and especially eels and sturgeon from the Po. Lombards also believe that the best salame in Italy is that produced in the town of Varzi, and that the best luganega, a traditional mild and lean pork sausage, is made in and around Monza. It is also said that the best parsley comes from Lombardy.
Without a doubt the people of Lombardy are carnivores. More farm animals are raised here than anywhere else in Italy. Pork is eaten in large quantities and rabbit is celebrated in Erba with a special annual fair. Beef in Lombardy, unlike in the rest of Italy where it is often of poor quality, is tender, juicy, and full of flavour. What Italians want when they eat is for the flavour of the main ingredient to come through loud and clear. All the other ingredients are there to help achieve this aim.