By Karl Vassallo as told to Adam Warner
It wasn’t the scale of the place that impressed me at first, but rather the size of an event that was dedicated solely to rice, specifically risotto rice. I was at the Fiera del Riso in the village of Isola della Scala just outside Verona. A village I had the pleasure of visiting on my previous trip, where, for an entire month, suppliers of risotto rice come together and celebrate the grain.
There were participants from across the region, with each supplier competing to produce the best Risotto all’Isolana, while also treating the 500,000 visitors to many other risottos and rice based dishes over the course of the month.
I had been well and truly bitten by the risotto bug. In the months prior to the fair I had kept in regular correspondence with a number of suppliers to such an extent that I was personally invited to attend the fair, and learn about the inner workings of risotto cooking on a much larger scale than I had seen on my previous trips.
Of many risottos tasted over the 3 days, one in particular stood out. The Risotto all’Isolana; it is made with pork and veal, and spiced with rosemary and cinnamon. All the flavours carefully balanced for a real depth of flavour. I was lucky enough to be taught the recipe by Gabriele Ferron, and it gives me great pleasure to, in turn, share it with you.
Recipe: Risotto all’Isolana
Ingredients for 4 people
320 g Vialone Nano rice
750 ml beef stock
150 g pork loin, chopped
150 g lean veal, chopped
60 g butter
60 g parmesan, grated
salt & pepper
Over a low heat, melt 40 g of butter with a small sprig of rosemary. When the butter turns gold, remove the rosemary. Add the meat and increase the heat. Brown the meat and season with salt, pepper and a dash of white wine. Lower the heat and cook through.
Pour the beef stock into pan, place on the stove and bring to boil, add the rice in a cone shape. Cover and let it start boiling again.
Once the stock is boiling, with a wooden spoon gently stir the rice in a figure of 8. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and cook for 10 minutes. Check the rice and once the rice is well visible under the layer of stock, add the meat sauce and cover again until the stock has been absorbed (1-2 minutes). Remove from heat and mix gently. Add the Parmesan cheese (previously sprinkled with cinnamon), the remaining butter and delicately mix.
Let the risotto rest in the pan for 2 minutes, covered with a damp cloth. Serve with a sprig of rosemary accompanied by an Amarone di Valpolicella for a complete traditonal taste of Isola della Scala.
The Ferron company is very much a family affair and in the evenings I would spend my time at “Risolandia”, an enormous hall housing a 300 seat Risotteria headed by Gabriel Ferron’s son Diego. The team also included his brothers Maurizio and Denis and 8 other young chefs serving almost 700 risotto’s over the course of the night, with around 400 of the local speciality, Risotto all’Isolana being served.
The kitchen worked like a military operation, everyone knew their job and carried it out with such efficiency that no errors were made all night. There were a number of techniques being used to cook the risotto. The Risotto all’Isolana, using the technique in the recipe above; the risotto with Radicchio di Verona IGP and monte veronese cheese, was made with the more commonly known stirring method, where the stock is added gradually. While another delicious dish named, Riso con straccetti di manzo con funghi, formaggio e rosmarino, uses a pilaf method and Carnaroli rice, where the rice is cooked in the oven instead of on the hob.
Diego Ferron was the generalissimo of the kitchen, taking orders and passing on instructions, followed to the letter by his team, each dish cooked to perfection.
It wasn’t only risotto being served that night. There was tiramisu for desert, with a sponge made of rice flour. The rice flour gave the sponge an unusual, though not unpleasant texture and although I would be hard pressed to pick a rice flour tiramisu over the usual tiramisu it was still a well balanced desert.
However, the dish that struck me as an example of the diversity of rice was the Pasticcio di riso, a dish similar to lasagne but using pancakes made from rice flour rather than pasta sheets. A much lighter and, in my opinion, a far more satisfying version of the classic Italian dish. I have reproduced the recipe by Gabriel Ferron below, and I urge you to try it, it really is a wonderful dish.
Recipe: Pasticcio di riso
Adapted from ‘Dall’antipasto al dolce – il Riso in cucina’ by Gabriele Ferron
Ingredients for 8 people
400 ml milk, at room temperature
150 g ‘La Pila Vecia’ rice flour
2 eggs, whole
20 g vegetable oil
2 bay leaves
40 g onion, finely chopped
40 g carrot, finely chopped
40 g celery, finely chopped
40 g bacon, finely chopped
200 g minced beef
200 g minced pork
50 g tomato paste
240 g peeled tomatoes
150 g parmesan, grated
50 g butter
salt and pepper
500 ml milk
50 g rice flour
40 g butter
Start by preparing the rice crepes. In a bowl, beat the eggs with a pinch of salt. Pour the milk, at room temperature, and stir in the vegetable oil and the rice flour. Continue to stir firmly until the mixture turns into a soft creamy batter. Let it stand for 30 minutes.
When it’s done heat a non-stick frying pan add some butter and when the pan becomes hot add a ladle of the batter and cook the crepes on both sides. Repeat process until the mixture finishes. Makes around four big pancakes.
For the ragu melt some butter, add extra virgin olive oil and the bay leaves. When hot add the finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery and fry in the pan for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
In a separate pan, cook the meat (minced beef, minced pork and pancetta) slowly until brown. Add some salt and a glass of red wine. Allow the wine to evaporate and then transfer the meat to the pan with the vegetables. Stir, cooking over high flame.
Add the tomato paste and tomatoes, stirring constantly. At this point add 1 litre of vegetable broth or water, stir again and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 40 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and grated nutmeg.
Whilst the ragu is cooking, make the béchamel sauce. In a saucepan melt the butter over medium heat, add the flour and whisk until the mixture is homogeneous. Remove from heat. Slowly pour the hot milk in the pan and mix well with the butter to stop it from forming lumps. Put the pan on the flame again and continue stirring with a whisk until it reaches boiling point.
Simmer for 20 minutes, adding salt and pepper and grated nutmeg to taste.
Grease a baking tray and layer over the crepes of rice covering the bottom of the tray. Pour over some béchamel sauce to cover the crepes and then add a layer of ragu. Sprinkle with grated parmesan and scatter small pieces of butter.
Repeat the above steps to create at least 3 layers.
Finish off the surface with the béchamel, and ragu – no more crepes. Sprinkle the dish with plenty of grated parmesan and some butter. Place the dish in an oven preheated to 200 degrees and cook for 40 minutes.
When cooked, leave to rest before serving, then cut into portions and serve.