Aspic, or meat jelly, is an age-old dish that’s making a comeback — Photo courtesy of peredniankina / iStock Via Getty Images
Milan stands at the forefront of global fashion and design, is home to luxury hotels and resorts, and boasts one of Italy’s liveliest food scenes. Yet, retro aspic and gelatin molds bask in an aura of glamor in the Lombard capital. The meat jelly is as prominent as panettone on the Milanese Christmas table, but you’ll find it on menus and in home kitchens all year long.
Aspic has played a part in countless Italian family meals. Milan’s beloved Peck has served its version of veal pâté aspic since it opened for business in 1883, always with the same recipe and the shop’s name inscribed on top. The iconic shop sells more than 3,000 aspics during the holiday season.
Two other beloved specialty food stores in Milan, Rossi & Grassi Salumeria and Il Nuovo Principe, also sell this classic aspic dish, along with others, such as lobster in bellavista and chicken in gelatin.
But what exactly is aspic, and why is it so popular?
What is aspic?
Some of the aspics on display at Peck in Milan — Photo courtesy of Peck
Aspic is made by boiling skin, bones, and other collagen-rich parts of animals (pig, cow or chicken) until the mixture becomes gelatinous. It’s very similar to making bone broth; thanks to collagen, a good bone broth should congeal when chilled. But for aspic, the broth is intentionally cooked down to become a clear, savory jelly.
That jelly gets used to encase other ingredients, like meats, fish, vegetables, or eggs, often set in a mold for a decorative effect.
The origins of meat jelly
The origins of aspic are almost as old as cooking itself. The idea of boiling meat stock to transform it into gelatin has existed for at least a millennium. In the 14th century, European cooks discovered that doing so for long enough causes the liquid to thicken and preserve whatever it encases. That meat jelly would then extend the shelf life of certain ingredients, its air-tight coating preventing bacteria from seeping through.
While it was originally seemingly utilitarian, meat jelly started showing up as elegant gelatin salads and desserts in lavish Renaissance banquets. And aspic remained popular during the Victorian Era, both in Europe and in the U.S.
The difference between aspic and Jell-O
Peck’s iconic veal pâté aspic — Photo courtesy of Peck
The mid-19th century arrival of powdered gelatin shifted the direction of traditional meat jellies, rendering it unnecessary to boil meat for hours at a time. But there’s a distinctive difference between aspic and Jell-O, mainly that aspic is savory, and Jell-O is often sweet.
Founded in 1897, Jell-O became fundamental in America’s Depression-era cooking. When home refrigerators became more commonplace in the 1950s, aspics and gelatins were catapulted into their stateside heyday. Refrigerators were a status symbol, and aspic indicated owning one.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, aspic enjoyed another Renaissance of sorts, as home cooks took to social networks to experiment with aspic recipes and share them on Facebook groups like Show Me Your Aspics, which counts more than 46,000 members.
Aspic’s enduring popularity in Milan
Fruit aspic at Ratanà — Photo courtesy of Ratanà
Post-Christmas, the Milanesi don’t stow their aspic molds alongside their ornaments once they’ve dismantled their trees. These wobbly delicacies endure year-round popularity — even supermarkets sell mini aspic and gelatin tartlets.
“It’s an intelligent dish,” asserts Cesare Battisti, Milan native, co-author of “Contemporary Milanese Cooking,” and chef of Ratanà restaurant. He recalls his mother’s chicken aspic during his childhood summers, when she’d boil a whole chicken, shred the meat, and combine it with the jellied broth in a terrine.
At Ratanà, he serves a fruit aspic during summer, combining strawberries or raspberries in a terrine with some apples and Moscato for a refreshing dessert
Enrico Bartolini, who counts 13 Michelin stars between nine dining establishments, serves a contemporary beef aspic year-round at his three-star Milan restaurant. The preparation comprises raw Piedmontese beef with citrus sauce, delicate mustard, and caviar.
Pietro Leemann’s squash and mushroom aspic — Photo courtesy of Lucio Elio
Chef Pietro Leemann has served vegetable aspic at Joia, the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe to earn a Michelin star, since its 1989 opening.
One recent version features a mushroom and pumpkin aspic served over a small salad with a green apple wedge, almond mayonnaise, and raspberry citronette. Leemann often uses modern molds that are shaped like older ones as a throwback to this classic style of cooking.
Matteo Baronetto’s spaghetti aspic from Del Cambio presented at the Identità Golose congress in Milan — Photo courtesy of Brambilla-Serrani
Chef Matteo Baronetto, who honed his talent alongside chef Carlo Cracco in Milan for 20 years, dabbles with aspic at the Michelin-starred Del Cambio in Turin.
As a child, he was always fascinated by the aspic displays in the shop windows of the numerous delicatessens. “Aspic has the charm of something timeless,” he says, adding that aspic serves different purposes, from aesthetic to gustatory to preservation.
Baronetto took the helm of this historic restaurant, which dates back to 1757, following its 2014 major revamp. Three years later, he devised a spaghetti aspic, which he describes as reminiscent of a cold pasta salad meets timbale, a baked pasta pie.
From fashion to food, this thoughtful attention to detail abounds in every facet of life in Milan. Perhaps these aesthetic principles are why the Milanesi keep a soft spot in their hearts for these timeless jiggly creations.
Shrimp and salmon aspic recipe
Total time: 7 hours (2 hours prep, 5 hours or more refrigeration)
It’s been said that Italians do it better, and aspic is no exception. Here’s an aspic recipe from Milanese home cook Silvia Magnano, whose mother always prepared at least two aspics for the holidays. Shrimp and salmon aspic is a family favorite any time of year. With black truffles and salmon, it feels like a special-occasion dish, one that will wow everyone at the table.
1½ liters (approximately 6⅓ cups) fish stock
21 gelatin leaves, divided, soaked in water until soft
1 cup mayonnaise
½ pound cooked salmon
½ cup heavy cream
6 black truffle shavings, each around 2-inches long
6 poached eggs
¼ pound cooked small-medium sized shrimp (approximately 16 to 20 shrimp, heads and tails removed)
½ pound smoked salmon
Make mayonnaise collée: In a double boiler or metal bowl over simmering water, add room temperature mayonnaise with three softened gelatin leaves. Whisk the mixture until the gelatin dissolves and the mayonnaise becomes gelatinous. Set aside to cool.
Make fish broth gelatin: In a large pot over medium heat, combine the fish broth and 18 soaked gelatin leaves. Cook, stirring frequently, until it becomes gelatinous. Set aside to cool.
Make salmon mousse: In a food processor or blender, combine the cooked salmon with the heavy whipping cream. Process until well combined and it becomes mousse-like in texture. Add salt to taste.
Build the aspic: Coat the inside of a 10-inch deep ring or bundt cake mold with a thin layer of fish broth gelatin. Place the truffle shavings inside, evenly spaced, around the ring.
Coat the poached eggs in the mayonnaise collée and place them inside the mold, laying them on top of each truffle shaving.
Insert the shrimp perpendicularly between the eggs so they seem to be standing; the thicker side (where the heads were) should face the outside of the mold. Fill with the remaining gelatin broth.
Cover the aspic and refrigerator for 5 hours or overnight. Note: make sure all components of the aspic are cool before refrigerating.
Unmold the aspic onto a large serving plate. Place the salmon mousse in the center hole and layer the smoked salmon slices on top of the mousse.