Vienna, 14 July 2017
As readers of my posts may know, since I retired last year my wife and I have pretty much divided our time between Vienna and Milan, having roots in both places. I therefore think it is time for me to wade into the Battle of the Wiener Schnitzel and the Cotoletta alla Milanese. As their names indicate, these delicious dishes are at home in Vienna and Milan, respectively. To get everyone’s juices flowing, I throw in here a photo of each: wiener schnitzel first
cotoletta alla milanese next.
For those of my readers who may not be conversant with one or both of these dishes, I should explain that both take a veal cutlet, dunk the veal in a beaten egg (sometimes preceded by a dunk in flour), cover it with a generous portion of breadcrumbs, and fry the result in butter (Milan) or lard (Vienna). They are for all intents and purposes the same dish, although the cognoscenti will insist on the differences: I have just mentioned the different frying medium, to which can be added: boned vs. deboned, Milan’s version still having the rib bone attached, while in Vienna’s version the bone has been detached; and as a consequence of this, different thicknesses, the Viennese version being pounded thin while the Milanese version, being still attached to the bone, is a few centimeters thick.
As I said, they are for all intents and purposes the same dish, and naturally enough the question has been raised if the chefs of one city did not at some point copy the chefs of the other. Well, let me tell you, much ink, and perhaps a little blood, has been spilled over this vital question: who copied who? Is the wiener schnitzel the son of the cotoletta alla milanese, or on the contrary did the cotoletta alla milanese sire the wiener schnitzel? Readers who think that this is an interesting academic question but surely hardly one over which to draw the kitchen knives don’t know the history of this little corner of the world. Allow me to give them a thumbnail sketch.
From 1525 to 1860, with the exception of some decades during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire that followed, Milan, along with much of northern Italy, was ruled by the Hapsburgs, first the Spanish branch of the family and then, from 1706 onwards, the Austrian branch. And so, by an accident of history, the Austrian was the Enemy when the Milanese, along with many other northern Italians, rallied behind the cause of Italian unification in the first decades of the 19th Century. Things first boiled over in 1848. Every Milanese, my wife included, will tell you of Le Cinque Giornate, the glorious five days in March of that year when the Milanese rose up and drove the Austrian Governor, Field Marshal Radetzky (he of Johan Strauss’s Radetzky March), and his troops out of Milan.
Alas! A few months later, Radetsky defeated the troops of the Piedmontese King of Sardinia, who had eagerly stepped forward to help his Lombard brothers (with the idea, of course, of incorporating Lombardy into his kingdom), and regained control of Milan and Austria’s other northern Italian territories. Not surprisingly, Radetzky is not seen with a terribly favourable eye in Milan.
Northern Italy was forced to remain under the yolk of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for another 11 years. In the meantime, Count Cavour, Prime Minister of the Piedmontese kingdom, had cut a deal with Napoleon III, which led to a Franco-Piedmontese war against the Austrians in 1859. The Austrians were beaten at the extremely bloody Battle of Solferino (it was his witnessing of the battle that caused the Swiss Henry Dunant to found the Red Cross).
After the battle, Lombardy was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sardinia, soon to be renamed the Kingdom of Italy.
I will skip the rest of the struggle against Austria, which only really concluded at the end of World War I with the cession of Trento and Alto Adige to the kingdom of Italy after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.
I think my potted history of Italian unification – at least its northern ramifications – will suffice to explain the sensitivities (especially in Milan, I have to say) about the relationship between the wiener schnitzel and the cotoletta alla milanese. I mean, just imagine how the Indians would feel if, for instance, someone claimed that chicken masala was actually a copy of a British dish: a dish of the ex-colonialist! The sensitivities are such that in the late 1960s a Sicilian who had emigrated to Milan and had become more Milanese than the natives published a completely fabricated story about how Radetzky, in the middle of a report to the Imperial Court about the military situation in northern Italy, had started rhapsodizing about a wonderful veal dish he had been introduced to in Milan. This piqued the Emperor’s attention, and when Radetzky next came back to Vienna to report, the Emperor packed him off to the Imperial kitchens to give the chef the recipe. Thus was born the wiener schnitzel, our Sicilian claimed, sired by the cotoletta alla milanese.
For many years, the story that Radetzky brought the cotoletta alla milanese to Vienna was widely believed, on both sides of the debate, but it has now been debunked. I won’t go into the details, suffice to say that our Sicilian’s story was a tissue of lies from one end to the other. But then this has meant that the question of which of the two dishes came first reared its ugly head again and sent food historians scrambling to do more research.
A face-saving solution seemed to have been found when it was pointed out that a French cookery book from 1749, “La Science du Maître d’Hôtel Cuisinier”,
contained a recipe where a veal cutlet was dipped in a beaten egg, covered in bread crumbs, and fried. Surely this meant that the French had invented the dish? That was alright, after all French cuisine is the mother of all cuisines and to be descended from a French dish is an honour. After which, various theories were put forward to explain how this French dish arrived both in Milan and in Vienna.
However, other – Italian – food historians have pointed out that the technique of breading and frying meat was already in use in Italy in the 16th-17th Centuries, as evidenced in the cookery book published in 1570 by Bartolomeo Scappi,
who was a noted chef to Cardinals and Popes, as well as in that published by the Bolognese Vincenzo Tanara in 1653.
Both cookery books give this technique as a way of using up various cuts of meat.
These food historians have gone one step further. Tanara lived all his life in Bologna and Scappi spent many years there as a cook to a Bolognese cardinal. They therefore suggest that the ancestor of the cotoletta alla milanese (and maybe by some tortuous path the wiener schnitzel) is none other than … the cotoletta alla bolognese! For those readers who, like me, had never heard of this dish before today, I can quickly report that it is a veal cutlet prepared just like a cotoletta alla milanese or a wiener schnitzel but on which slices of raw cured ham have been placed, followed by flakes of Parmesan cheese, the whole then being placed in the oven and heated until the Parmesan has melted (aficionados pop a shaving of truffle on the top at the end). This is what it looks like.
Well! Here, we will plunge into an even earlier period of the Italian peninsula’s history, when the city-states were all quarreling and fighting with each other,
a competitiveness which lingers on in Italy’s football championship; here we have Inter Milan against Bologna last year (Inter Milan won 2-1).
Will the Milanese ever be able to accept that they received anything good from Bologna? I’ve asked my wife about the cotoletta alla bolognese and she says she’s never heard of it, even though she lived a year in Bologna during her student days and the dish is reported as being a very important, very ancient Bolognese dish.
This does not bode well for how this theory will be greeted as it percolates down from the small clique of food historians to the general Milanese public. Already other food historians claim to have found evidence that a predecessor of the cotoletta alla milanese already existed in Milan in the 12th Century. There is a Milanese document which lists in macaronic Latin the dishes eaten by the cannons of the Basilica of St. Ambrose in 1148. One of these dishes is “lombolos cum panitio”. No-one seems to have a problem with the word lombolos, which all agree is a cut of meat. The problem is with “cum panitio”. The more optimistic interpreters think it means breaded, and on the basis of this interpretation Milan’s city fathers passed a city decree a few years ago giving the cotoletta alla milanese a denomination of local origin. The more skeptical interpreters shrug their shoulders and say “cum panitio” could mean any one of a series of bread-based foodstuffs which were simply accompanying the lombolos.
The arguments will no doubt rage on. My personal take, for what it’s worth, is that the technique of breading a piece of meat could well have been invented in many places independently. Why couldn’t cooks in different places and at different times have figured out that bread crumbs will attach to a piece of meat when it’s been dipped in beaten egg and that the breaded meat can then be fried? I mean, we’re not talking rocket science here. But hey, who am I? Just a guy who enjoys eating wiener schnitzel and cotoletta alla milanese from time time. What do I know about anything?
Wiener Schnitzel: http://www.gayinvienna.com/en/blog/wiener-schnitzel
Cotoletta alla Milanese: http://mangiarebuono.it/la-cotoletta-o-costoletta-alla-milanese/
Cinque Giornate: http://www.milanofree.it/milano/storia/le_cinque_giornate_di_milano.amp.html
Battle of Solferino: http://www.experiences-plus.it/extra/extra_risorgimento_3.htm
Science du Maître d’Hôtel Cuisinier: https://nouveauservice.wordpress.com/category/recherche/
Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi: http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.co.at/2009/03/renaissance-kitchen.html?m=1
Vincenzo Tanara, L’economia del Cittadino I Villa: https://www.maremagnum.com/libri-antichi/l-economia-del-cittadino-in-villa-del-signor-vincenzo-tanara/105032152
Cotoletta bolognese: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/ricette.donnamoderna.com/cotolette-alla-bolognese%3Famp%3Dtrue
Battle between Italian city states: http://www.medievalists.net/2008/11/the-rise-and-decline-of-italian-city-states/
Inter Milan-Bologna, 2016: http://www.ilrestodelcarlino.it/bologna/sport/calcio/inter-bologna-2016-diretta-1.1970445