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Cassoeula isn’t just a classic Milanese winter stew, it’s a triumph of Italian culinary skill over humble ingredients.
“It’s made with cabbage and many parts of the pig: nose, ears, trotters, tail and rib, plus Verzino sausage,” says Cesare Battisti, head chef at Ratana in Milan.
“It’s all the bits of the outside of the pig. It’s poor people’s food from long ago. When you killed your pig, you’d sell the meat – and this is what you’d make for yourself with the rest.”
Rich, warming and delicious, it’s the taste of a Milan winter, when the Savoy cabbage is in season. “It is good when the cabbage gets the frost in the early morning,” says Battisti. “We make it from December 10 until the end of February; that’s the period when the cabbage is taking the frost.”
A labour of love with every ingredient
Like many great European casserole dishes – such as its French cousin, Cassoulet – making Cassoeula is a labour of love. “It takes a whole day!” Battisti says. “It’s slow cooking; every part [of the meat] has a different cooking time. After you put all that together with the cabbage, celery, onion, carrots, a little spoon of tomato sauce, it’s about another two hours. But it’s worth it, because this meal is part of the soul of Milan.”
Battisti, 46, is a Cassoeula partisan. While other Milan restaurants have turned away from a dish devised when work was harder and food heavier, Battisti has updated his version without losing its essential character. “30, 40, 50 years ago you would cook it all together in a pan in the oven,” he says. “Now we make it a more modern way – we take out a lot of the fat. It’s lighter.”
Ratana, where Battisti has worked since it opened in 2009, is famous for its modern versions of classic Milanese dishes. Risotto Milanese (made with saffron), Osso Bucco (braised veal shin), Cotoletta Milanese (veal cutlet) and a variety of other traditional dishes from this northern Italian city are available at this restaurant, not far from Hotel Indigo Milan — Corso Monforte.
“I’ve worked around the world, and when I came back to Milan I said: ‘Why don’t we make traditional Milanese dishes?'” says Battisti. “The most famous foods of the Italian kitchen are from the south – spaghetti and pizza – but there are 3,000 or 4,000 traditional dishes in Italy, and here in Milan we have a lot of great dishes.
“At Ratana, we make classic food, but lighter. The presentation is very different but the texture and the taste is the same.”
Battisti’s devotion to Milanese cuisine reflects his roots in the city: his father and many generations of his family lived here. The building in which the restaurant can be found also has deep Milanese roots: it’s an early 20th-century structure that formed part of a railway station, and it’s named for Don Giuseppe Gervasini, “El Pret de Ratanà”, a priest who became a popular icon for his skill at healing, for which he used the herbs grown in his garden. Battisti shares a love for fresh herbs and vegetables, and always cooks according to the seasons.
“My favourite time is in the spring,” he says. “All of our vegetables comes from small producers, small farms around the city. One week it might be baby green peas that are in season, and then ten days’ later you have the big peas, you have to change. I like it. It makes being a chef interesting.”
Cassoeula will be off the menu come the end of February, but something equally delicious and local is sure to take its place.