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In the name of rice

It is with delight and satisfaction that I am writing about Gabriele Ferron’s second visit to Malta. Following last year’s favourable outcome of the Riso e Risotti degustation events held at Tartarun in Marsaxlokk and Spezzo in Valletta, master chef Gabriele Ferron accepted our renewed invitation.

Day 1-2 / 10th & 11th April

Master Chef Gabriele Ferron explaining the difference between Carnaroli and Vialone Nano rice for risotto

This time the events were spread out on 4 days. We kicked off the Riso e Risotti campaign at the Institute of Tourism Studies with a lecture delivered to the final year chef students by Gabriele Ferron.

The crowd of youngsters gathered in the hall, murmuring and circumspectly waiting for the appearance of their special guest. The atmosphere reminded me so much of my student days. The mood was set by the radiant face of Gabriele as he had the floor and was recounting his affiliation with rice. It was easy to sense his passion as he was disseminating knowledge about the process of cultivating, harvesting and milling rice in his territory. His curious questions addressed to students like how many grains there are in 100g of rice immediately captured their attention. By the end of the first session it felt like Gabriele had got them under his rice spell.

It was time for the practical part of the lecture. We moved to the well-equipped kitchen of the Institute of Tourism Studies where Gabriele Ferron divulged the characteristics which distinguish the Vialone Nano rice variety from the Carnaroli species. He continued by demonstrating two distinct methods of cooking risotto.

Gabriele’s lifetime experience helped him develop a particular method for cooking risotto – the no stirring technique. This no stir method involves toasting the rice in some extra virgin olive oil, adding double the amount of rice of boiling broth and leaving the rice to cook for 10 minutes, covered with the lid and without stirring.  You can then add the condiment to your liking. In this instance, the Master Chef combined this Carnaroli risotto with a mixture of finely chopped herbs including basil, mint and wild fennel tops. The aroma emanating from these herbs was overwhelming.

Preparing Carnaroli rice in advance

Successively, the traditional rice cooking method was presented by Gabriele Ferron.  The Vialone Nano rice variety was used to prepare the traditional recipe of Isola della Scala, in Verona, the Risotto all’Isolana. This fragrant risotto is combined with lean pork, veal, rosemary and a hint of cinnamon. For this method the rice was added to a pan of boiling broth, stirred once and cooked on a very low heat for 15 minutes. The risotto dish is concluded by adding the meat sauce and delicately beating in butter and grated cheese.

The students, having witnessed this cooking session by a rice master chef and tasted the differently prepared risottos looked satisfied and fascinated. But are they prepared to participate in the Risotto Contest? Who will fascinate the eyes and tastes of Gabriele Ferron with their risotto recipe? The winners of this contest will attend and cook at the most prestigious manifestation of rice in Italy – the Fiera del Riso.

A similar presentation introducing the range of products produced by Riseria Ferron and demonstrating the different cooking techniques was held the following day for restaurant owners and chefs by Gabriele Ferron. The event was also held at the Institute of Tourism Studies.

Day 3 – 4 / 12th & 13th April

Traditional Maltese boats at Marsaxlokk

Although it was our second Riso e Risotti degustation I was trembling with excitement. The menu was finalised, the ingredients taken care of by the staff at Tartarun Restaurant. In the afternoon, Gabriele Ferron and my brother started preparations in the kitchen together with chef James Schiavone from Tartarun. I was in charge of the bookings. Some bookings were cancelled at the last minute and this kind of dropped my morale. It’s only until I realised that such things happen all the time to restaurant owners that I got back the energy and vibe to make the evening a success.

Guests started coming in at 8pm. They were welcomed with a Prosecco cocktail and enticed by a selection of rice crackers topped with sun-dried tomato pate, local bigilla paste (cream of beans with garlic, parsley and olive oil) and chicken pate with onions, celery and carrots.

Gabriele Ferron explaining the symbolism of rice

At around half eight Gabriele Ferron appeared to make his introduction. His short but glamorous speech pointed out the importance of rice in the world and its symbol of prosperity and fertility. He spoke highly of Malta and was adamant that the combination of rice with local ingredients such as fish, vegetables and herbs will produce delicious and genuine results in the kitchen.

Then off he was to start serving the series of degustation dishes. An arancina with squid ink placed on a tomato and chilli relish was served as an amuse-bouche. The first course consisted of mixed vegetables and red mullet fillets battered with a rice flour mixture and deep-fried. This warm salad was served on a selection of leaves and dressed with home-made citrus mayonnaise.  The salad was followed by a rice flour creamy polenta topped with fresh clams and a tomato concasse. Next in line was a train of 3 diverse risotto dishes: a carnaroli risotto with fresh basil, mint and wild fennel; a carnaroli risotto with cauliflower puree and baked scallop; and a vialone nano risotto with artichoke hearts and fresh anchovy fillets. The degustation was concluded with a classic tiramisu however prepared with cream of rice.

Arancini di riso al nero di seppia

Creamy polenta made from rice flour topped with fresh clams and a tomato concassè

Risotto with fresh aromatic herbs

Risotto con il cavolfiore e capesante

Vialone Nano risotto with artichoke hearts and fresh anchovies

Layers of coffee-soaked sponge fingers topped with cream of rice and mascarpone cheese

On Friday, we were lucky not to get any cancellations and the restaurant was jam-packed. Everyone seemed geared up for the weekend and the atmosphere was somewhat livelier. Or, was I actually more relaxed?

All in all the two degustation evenings were a complete success. The comments we received were auspicious. I feel that these days spent in the name of rice were rewarding and look forward to have similar events coming up.

I would like to thank all the sponsors and contributors who helped us in setting up these events especially Riseria Ferron, Tartarun Restaurant, Hotel Santana and M. Demajo Wines & Spirits.

But most of all our big thank you goes to Gabriele Ferron who accepted our invitation to come to Malta for the second time and share with us the passion and knowledge he nourishes for his amour-propre – rice!

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