By Karl Vassallo as told to Adam Warner
This is the first of a series of articles about my experiences whilst travelling around the risotto rice belt. My first stop was Isola della Scala, home of the Vialone nano rice, in the Veneto region – Italy.
When it comes to risotto I’m a bit of a late starter. Since I grew up in Malta I had a broad Mediterranean diet and had experienced this classic Italian dish on occasions. My flatmate in Amsterdam, who is a big fan of this dish, cooked risottos fairly often yet its appeal never really stuck. I always thought it was a labour intensive dish, rather unappealing after a hard day at work. The need for precision and attention always meant that, given the choice, I’d take pasta over risotto any day.
Last year on a trip to New York I visited Risotteria, a restaurant with a focus on risotto. Normally it would not have been my first choice, but I love the novelty of these single-item restaurants. The risotto in question, with calamari and lemon, was very good, but I acquired more than just the taste of the dish from my visit. I was impressed by the versatility and creativity of a dish with endless possibilities.
Back in Amsterdam I started cooking risotto more often. I used Arborio rice, the most common type of risotto rice found in the supermarkets over here. But I could never get it quite right. I did my research and discovered that there was more to rice than just Arborio. I became acquainted with the Vialone Nano and Carnaroli rice, both of which were rice varieties unheard of to me. From what I read they seemed to be of far superior quality than Arborio.
Due to my growing interest in rice I decided to spend some time in the Po Valley, Italy, the birthplace of risotto. I stayed in Verona for much of the time. Situated in northern Italy, it lies at the easterly point of the risotto rice belt that stretches from Torino in the west, past Milan and ends a little east of Verona. Two suppliers growing rice near the city invited me over to spend some time with them. Here I began to appreciate the Vialone Nano and Carnaroli rice varieties above all others.
View The Risotto Rice Belt in a larger map
I first met with a comparably new supplier in the scene, the owner of Riso Melotti, in Isola della Scala just south of Verona. Over a morning coffee we chatted idly, and after we took the short journey with the car to his farm. It was a magnificent area, flat and expansive. Here I learnt about the process of growing rice and also it’s processing. I think my eagerness to learn more was evident. I was offered further visits and also an open invitation to his rice paddies. For lunch we ate at the Risotteria Melotti, a restaurant owned by the Melotti family. We ate and drank at a leisurely pace all through the afternoon. The young chef kept coming with a never-ending supply of rice and risotto dishes. So to tantalise your taste buds the menu for that afternoon was:
An antipasto of ‘Melottino’, a salami with toasted rice, some cacciotina cheese known as ‘Melottina’, accompanied by some grissini. The primi consisted of: Grilled rice polenta with rabbit stew, a rice piadina with salami ‘Melottino’ and cacciottina ‘Mellottina’, and a rice strudel with vegetables and cream of Topinambur. The main dishes were three risottos: Risotto with broccoli and peperoncino, the famous Risotto all’Isolana and a risotto with scallops and sun dried tomatoes. For dessert I had a tiramisu made with plum cake prepared with flour of Vialone nano rice by Melotti. We finished the meal with the ubiquitous espresso before I left for Vinitaly, and spent there a lazy evening of wine tasting.
The second of the suppliers I visited was Riseria Ferron, headed by Gabriele Ferron, an internationally renowned chef, nicknamed the ‘King of Rice’. His empire extends to a restaurant located in the building of a 17th century flourmill, the Pila Vecia.
The risotto I tasted there was without doubt the best I have ever eaten. His degustation menu was a showcase of both Ferron’s skills as a cook, the versatility of the ingredient and an example of how the habitat of the rice paddies can be used to supply the kitchen with more than just the rice. One risotto in particular was made with the carp and other fish that live in the rice paddies.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the whole experience was that Gabriele Ferron and his son, Diego, prepared 8 separate dishes for around 80 people, having each plate cooked to perfection.
The menu for the degustation event at Pila Vecia, held during the Vinitaly wine fair was the following:
It was in Ferron’s kitchen that I learnt new techniques on how to cook risotto. From that moment risotto was no longer identified as a dish that required constant stirring and attention. One of Ferron’s techniques in particular, the one I’m sharing with you below, is a method that doesn’t require stirring or adding of stock slowly. It does not even take 30 minutes plus to cook! However it’s a technique that requires exact measurements.
Risotto is a dish that is often underrated and misunderstood. It is rich and creamy yet delicate and often lighter than pasta. With the addition of few ingredients you can create a diffusion of flavours with real depth. Its versatility makes it ideal as a gluten free, classic, store, cupboard, comfort food but it is also a dish that can thrill and impress. A risotto can be anything you want, convenient or complicated, quick or slow; but always one of the most satisfying dishes to cook and eat.
Here is the recipe that I now use on a weekly basis. It seems fairly simple but the measurements and timing are critical for the success of the dish.
Recipe: Risotto Parmigiano Reggiano
This is a basic risotto recipe that can be used as a base for most of your risotto dishes.
Ingredients for 4 people:
- 320g Carnaroli rice
- 700ml vegetable stock
- 60g parmiggiano reggiano, grated
- ½ onion, finely chopped
- knob of butter
- extra stock
Making the vegetable stock
Roughly chop 3 celery sticks, 2 medium-sized carrots and 1 large onion. Throw all ingredients in a large pan, add 2 litres of water, a bay leaf and bring to boil. Simmer for 40 minutes, uncovered. Using a spoon/sieve, remove the foam that rises to the top. When it’s done, add salt to taste and then remove from heat and pass through a sieve.
Preparing the risotto
Pour the stock in a pan and bring to boil. In the meantime heat some olive oil in another large pan and add the onion. Cook until transparent; do not let the onion turn brown. Add the rice and toast until rice is very hot. Test with your fingers (careful though!). When hot enough, add the boiling stock at one go. Mix gently, cover and cook on very low flame for 13 minutes.
It is important that the stock is boiling hot. Let the rice cook until the stock is absorbed. Taste the rice. If it is not ready and all the water has dried out, add some more boiling stock and let it absorb it again. Taste the rice again.
Remove from heat and add the butter and the cheese. Mix gently until the cheese and butter have melted. If it is too sticky you can add some extra broth for a creamier texture. Put the lid on and cover with damp cloth for 2 minutes. The flavours will mix and create a simple wonderful dish.
It can also be experimented with by adding an older type of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, extra stock for more creaminess and maybe some grated cinnamon mixed in with the cheese. This simple dish then becomes quite sophisticated.
In the next article I will recount my visit to The Rice Fair in Isola Della Scala – a celebration of rice from Veneto region, together with the recipe of the famous risotto all’Isolana.
I also would like to hear from you. So please do let me know what type of rice you use for risotto and what technique you use to cook the dish.