Tomorrow marks the 5th edition of International Day of Italian Cuisine. For the past 5 years the 17th of January has been set aside to celebrate the Italian contribution to world cuisine. Every year a classic dish from the pantheon of Italy’s great and good is selected to mark the occasion. This year it’s osso buco alla Milanese.
Unlike many of Italy’s classic dishes, relatively little is known about the origins of osso buco – or oss buss [pronounced oss buse] in the local Milanese dialect. Milan’s city council registered the dish in 2007 as a De.Co., which effectively means that the dish stems from the local territory. As to when it first made an appearance, no one can really say. It certainly dates back some time as the recipe was included in Pellegrino Artusi’s famous book, ‘La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangier bene’ in 1891. But whether it originated from cucina povera or higher end Italian cuisine is uncertain. The use of a cheaper cut of meat in the dish, veal shin, might suggest that it was a dish of the poor reserved, of course, for Sundays and special occasions, but not necessarily so.
As for the dish itself, it is relatively simple to make, albeit somewhat time consuming. Veal shin, roughly 3cm in thickness, cut through the bone with the marrow included is lightly floured and browned in butter with onions. White wine or broth is added and the meat is allowed to simmer until meltingly tender – about 2 hours. The dish is finished with a gremolata of chopped parsley, lemon peel and garlic (and sometimes anchovies) and served traditionally with a risotto alla Milanese. Today, many people find the rice too heavy and opt instead to serve the veal over creamy mashed potatoes, polenta, plain white rice cooked in butter or just with rustic pieces of country bread. It’s a question of taste.
Other takes on the Milanese version include osso buco alla Fiorentina, a classic Sunday plate of the Tuscan kitchen. The method is pretty much the same except that a classic battuto of chopped vegetables (including celery, carrot and onion) is added and the meat is cooked in a tomato sauce. In Reggio Emilia a version known as alla reggiana is made in which the shins are cooked in a combination of white wine and tomatoes.
Now in its 5th year, International Day of Italian Cuisine has celebrated some of Italy’s most iconic plates. Previous contenders have included spaghetti carbonara, risotto alla Milanese, pesto alla Genovese and tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese. The event, in part at least, is intended to help preserve the identity of Italy’s classic dishes. The dishes selected are not only some of the country’s most widely known on an international level, but they are also some of the dishes that are most abused and misunderstood outside their country of origin.
It has to be said, however, that although International Day of Italian Cuisine has in a few short years achieved something of an international platform, it is still an event that in Italy goes by relatively unnoticed. Most Italians are ignorant of the newfound relevance of the 17th of January, many knowing it better as the Catholic feast day of Saint Antonio Abate, patron saint of, amongst other things, domestic animals, pigs, pig herders, butchers, salami makers, people with eczema and any other communicable skin diseases. For a nation that enjoys its salami more than most, that makes Saint Tony something of a VIP in Italian eyes.
Unfortunately this year, I have to admit, I’m not going to be taking part in the celebrations, however unpatriotic that might sound. The truth is I ate osso buco alla Fiorentina in the mountains on Sunday with the family. We worked our way through over 1 kilo of veal shin! Fortunately, or not – depending on how you look at it - neither my wife nor my children indulge in the best part of the dish – the sought-after bone marrow. So I got to suck my way through the better part of a plate of bones (I used the suction method as I haven’t got around to buying a set of long handled spoons known as esattore, namely tax collector, which are designed for this very purpose). Eating through a kilo’s worth of bone marrow isn’t necessarily a good idea. But I couldn’t help myself. As expected, chronic indigestion followed yesterday evening. Luckily I had a bottle of nocino [an excellent digestive] to hand to ease my suffering. Tomorrow I’m expecting to break out in spots. But I’m not worried. It is after all the feast day of Saint Antonio and he’s just the guy for taking care of that sort of thing!
Braised veal shanks, Florentine-style
Osso buco alla Fiorentina
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 2-2.5 hours
4 veal shank steaks
A few celery stalks
1 clove of garlic
750ml tomato passata
3-4 tablespoons plain flour
Freshly chopped parsley
Salt & pepper
Finely dice the onion, carrot and celery stalks. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to a large heavy-based frying pan and gently fry the vegetables and garlic until beginning to soften. This should take about 5 minutes. Remove the vegetables from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. Lightly coat the veal steaks in seasoned flour and then place them in the same pan. Add another tablespoon of olive oil and cook over a medium to high heat until browned on each side. Return the vegetables to the pan and add the tomato passata and water. Season with salt and pepper and simmer gently for 2 hours until the meat is soft and tender. Sprinkle over freshly chopped parsley and serve over either mashed potatoes, polenta or rice.