Waking up to the thought of having a celebrity chef waiting for you to pick him up is unbeatable. Just right in the midst of my marriage plans, chef Gabriele Ferron, flew over to Malta, directly from Verona to host a degustation event of rice and risotto. Only on the morning of the 2nd July, I will be able to tell you which was the most heart-beating event for 2011: will it be my wedding day or the week with Gabriele Ferron?
Gabriele, with his Italian charm, makes you feel immediately at ease. As we drove to Marsaxlokk, to our first location of the degustation, Gabriele explained the plan for the day, making sure that everything will be ready by the time the customers arrive. As he took control of the impeccably clean kitchen of Tartarun restaurant, the rice master, now in his full chef uniform, picked up the knives, pots and pans and started to work.
We went through the degustation menu together with chef of Tartarun, James Schiavone. James proudly exhibited the selection of freshly bought fish as required for the occasion and made sure Gabriele was provided with necessary tools and ingredients. For the rest of the day, Gabriele and James worked head to head to prepare the three different stocks, the dessert and all that was needed to assemble the dishes on the menu.
As seating time approached, customers started to gather at the bar. Whilst incomers were enjoying an aperitif, the atmosphere in the kitchen was orderly and calm. Gabriele was sipping on a glass of prosecco whilst the waiting staff strolled out with the amouse bouche. This consisted of crackers made from rice flour and topped with three different spreads: cream of green tomatoes; chickpea & olive oil puree and a pate of almond & sweet peppers.
Soon after, when the crowd got larger, Chef Gabriele Ferron appeared to make his introduction. He explained how from all over the world, people ask him to visit their country to share with them the culture of rice. Rice, he said, should be appreciated worldwide for its nutritional value and significance. Gabriele amusingly explained why rice is thrown at two people who have just got married. He describes rice as a symbol of love, fertility, prosperity, well-being and happiness.
His speech was closed with a deafening applause. Then, smiling customers were accompanied to their seats and introduced to the wine pairing selection provided by M. Demajo Wines & Spirits.
The degustation menu kicked off with the Pesce fritto: prawns, calamari, squid, and a red mullet fillet were coated in a batter made from rice flour and deep-fried. Meanwhile, I was hovering gently around the serving hall to collect feedback and also scrambling in and out of the kitchen to peck at the fritto extras. The amazing characteristic of rice flour is that it does not absorb the oil. The fried fish leaves no trace of oil on your fingertips and there is no greasy trail as you munch it down your throat. So, thumbs up for the antipasto!
As I peeped into the now bustling kitchen, Gabriele and his team were preparing the primo. With an enormous pan resting between his arms, Gabriele was delicately whisking the polenta. The white polenta, made from rice flour, was served with fresh pan-fried barracuda and a tomato concasse.
Circling around the seating area, after the polenta was served, I could not figure out the perplexed expression on the face of the public. As I discreetly fished for compliments, (sorry for being humble but truthful) I reckoned that many were not familiar with the word polenta. Others knew that it was that yellow sticky mass they usually see on Italian TV programmes, which appears unappetising for many. Despite of the fear of the unknown, it was evident, that after the first spoonful everyone scraped this soft and digestible cream off their bowls. The polenta turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Preparing 4 different risottos for around 60 people is no piece of cake. Yet, Gabriele and co. managed this task perfectly well. After the light polenta, 4 portions of risotto were served at approximately 15 minute intervals. Out with the risotto artichokes and Mediterranean prawns first! A succulent prawn topped up the carnaroli rice, which had absorbed all the flavours of the pink prawn stock prepared that morning. The fleshy artichoke hearts complimented the dish.
Next in line was the delicate scallop and sparkling wine risotto. Toasted with a prosecco from Veneto and cooked in boiling fish stock this risotto was seductively served with a shallow-fried scallop nested in its shell.
In the waiting intervals of the train of risottos, I was moving around the restaurant chatting with people I knew and also introducing myself to new faces. With fingers crossed, I was curious to know whether everything was to their liking. Luckily, I collected only positive comments. Eaters were mystified by the consistency of the rice. In Malta, risotto meant that heavy gluey mixture made from Arborio rice. The rice used by Gabriele Ferron in the served dishes was unfamiliar to most of the attendees. Two of the finest rice varieties were cooked at this degustation event: the superfine Carnaroli and the Vialone Nano. I suggest you read this article for more information on these varieties.
So, another 2 risottos were still to be served. Although people were starting to feel full, no one resisted the black risotto. Blended with fresh squid ink and topped with wild Maltese fennel, picked up directly by Gabriele, this risotto was a favourite.
Last, but not least, the acclaimed finger lickin’ good, risotto all’isolana. This traditional recipe from Isola della Scala in Verona goes back to 1967 and presents a fragrant risotto with pork and veal pieces spiced up with cinnamon and rosemary. The aroma of this dish was so appealing, that as soon as I could, I ran into the kitchen and helped myself with a generous portion.
To conclude this event, Gabriele Ferron baked the torta di riso. The recipe, inherited from his mother, includes a number of sensitive steps which I followed thoroughly during the morning’s preparation. Before sharing with you the recipe, I prefer trying it myself so that I get to know the ropes. However, I can assure you that the cake as prepared by Gabriele was ambrosial.
Time ran fast and after the dessert and coffees people started to look forward to their bedtime. With a rice-full stomach customers headed to their homes with a 250g portion of Vialone Nano rice as a souvenir.
As the curtains draw to a close we, as Eatmania, felt that the evening worked out particularly fine. Customers were positively satisfied and Gabriele was captivated by the Maltese crowd and the collaboration he had from the Tartarun owners and staff. Everyone did a professional and dedicated job.
I would like to conclude with a phrase which Gabriele Ferron used to describe Malta and this degustation event and which is a true synopsis of this activity:
Ma’ che spettacolo!