Forty years have passed since “saffron and gold risotto” made its début, marking the return of edible gold in the world of fine gastronomy thanks to the master of new Italian cuisine. Enrico Dandolo, CEO of Fondazione Gualtiero Marchesi, takes us on a journey of discovery of the history and secrets of this iconic dish.
Why is “Saffron and gold rice” so important?
Because it is an artistic dish that is brave and laden with significance that unveils many stories; it perfectly represents the idea that Gualtiero Marchesi had of food as an inseparable combination of the cult of goodness and the culture of beauty.
Why do you define it an artistic dish?
After the Second World War, when he was still a young boy, Gualtiero wanted to enrol in the Academy of Fine Arts, but his family (who ran a hotel and restaurant) were quick to remind him of his responsibilities. The world of art, design and architecture always topped his list of interests. Marchesi the chef never stopped nurturing Marchesi the artist and because of this he surrounded himself with great masters and brilliant minds (like Piero Manzoni, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Lucio Fontana and Gillo Dorfles). He expressed his extraordinary creativity by creating dishes that are both icons of taste and icons of his idea of aesthetics. To him, gastronomy was a veritable applied art.
Can you tell us about how it came about?
From research into colour. During that period, Gualtiero Marchesi had teamed up with a photographer who was developing a project centred around the colour yellow. In the kitchen, saffron has always represented the colour yellow par excellence and is even etymologically associated with the golden splendour of the sun. Reinterpreting a traditional dish that is already so intense and precious, reinventing its recipe, thinly spreading it on a plate and garnishing it with a pure gold leaf as a seal of authenticity, was an artistic gesture in the truest sense of the term.
Have you ever considered patenting it?
As surprising as it may sound, it is not possible to patent a recipe that has already been added to a restaurant menu. This is paradoxical considering that the first case of copyright ever to be recorded actually regarded the creation of a dish: in 510 BC the people of Sibari were the first to certify it and establish that whoever invented a new recipe had the exclusive right to prepare it and receive royalties from anyone who made it, for a year. Therefore Ancient Greek colonies had a greater awareness than we do of the importance of copyright as an incentive for the quality of a gastronomic tradition, and as recognition (also economic in nature) of the capacity for innovation.
Despite having a very precise and recognised origin as well as a registered name and logo, the recipe for “Saffron and gold risotto” cannot be patented.
When asked how they discovered edible gold, all chefs told us that it was thanks to this dish; many of them have succumbed to the temptation of cooking it at least once. Did Gualtiero Marchesi feel irritated or gratified by the idea of being imitated?
In the story of Italian cuisine there’s a “before Marchesi” and an “after Marchesi” which is conventionally believed to have begun with the arrival of the third Michelin star. As of 1986 and for more than two decades, every evening in the hall there was at least one table occupied by diners looking for inspiration from his cuisine. Marchesi had no fear of being copied. On the contrary, he was happy to contribute towards raising the game of Italian haute cuisine. To celebrate forty years of “Saffron and gold risotto”, we offered cooks who have worked in the kitchens of Marchesi the chance to re-propose the dish and add it to their menus, in compliance with the highly stringent rules set by the master, on it preparation, serving and consumption. Marchesi was intransigent, for example, on temperature and times (no more than a minute should pass between plating and serving), not to mention on crockery. Envisioned by its creator as a veritable plated-painting, authentic “Saffron and gold risotto” is served on nothing other than a Villeroy&Boch plate with a black and gold edge, designed by Marchesi himself. It is to be savoured with nothing other than a gold spoon, also designed by Marchesi.
Is this the only dish in which Gualtiero Marchesi used edible gold?
Unlike other artists or architects who identify a style and develop it almost as a series, culminating in a style that remains true to itself, Marchesi created perfect dishes that were unique. So he never used gold leaf for any other dish. He did use edible gold leaf shards for his saffron rice that was served before performances at the Scala, and for his summer saffron rice, less creamy and with a fluffier texture compared to the “Saffron and gold risotto”.
Silver leaf is a chapter onto itself, as it was selected as a symbolic representation of a flag on “Riso brillante” with squid ink, prepared on occasion of celebrations for 150 years of Italian Unity. For the rice with squid ink on his menu, Marchesi opted for edible silver shards. It is an extremely difficult dish to photograph. The only way to fully appreciate this unique aesthetic experience, with thousands of silver sparkles framed by the platinum edge of the plate (designed by Marchesi), is to order it!
Is serving a dish decorated with edible gold still cause for amazement?
The amazement is still there, but customers are asking us less often whether the gold is actually edible. Those who come to our restaurant know we meticulously select all ingredients and we would never serve anything but certified food grade gold made in accordance with the highest quality standards.
“Gold and saffron risotto” is a dish that is always on the menu at your restaurants. Which edible gold do you use?
Only Gold Chef by Giusto Manetti Battiloro, obviously! In 2012 at a dinner we organised for the ministers of the interior of G8 nations, the United States secretary of homeland security wanted to be certain that the gold on the risotto was indeed edible. If we hadn’t presented the certificates of Manetti gold, it would have been a disaster!