Confessions of a Risotto Expert
“The Chinese, the Arabs, the Greeks, the Indians, the Spaniards, the Turks, the Persians, have marvelous national rice dishes:……The Italian risotto is a dish of a totally different nature and unique.”
Italian Food Elizabeth David, 1954
Looking out of the huge glass windows across the lagoon back to St Mark’s Square I wonder how I’m going to concentrate on the afternoon’s cooking class. Well it doesn’t much matter I think, I already know how to make risotto. I love risotto. All types of risotto: with peas, asparagus, seafood or truffles, even darkened and enriched with Amarone wine.
I rather fancy myself as a risotto expert, I know to coat the rice grains in fat before bathing them in gently simmering stock, all the while stirring so the rice gently swells. I’ll be able to gaze out of the Cipriani’s windows guilt free. Then, just as I’m considering a more daring ploy, sneaking out of the class and installing myself at a table on the terrace and ordering a Bellini to fully appreciate the view, the chef arrives.
Good looking in that dark Italian way with a charming accented English it’s just not enough to keep me in my seat. I’m still planning an early exit when he begins to talk about rice. “Rice is the soul of risotto so your choice of rice is crucial.” “Yes, yes,” I whisper to myself. I know that starchy rice is essential for making risotto. I’ve been happily been stirring grains of Italian Arborio but this now this man is declaring that Carnaroli is a better choice and I haven’t even heard of it. At this point the view of Venice fades and my concentration switches to the chef and the stove.
His method is familiar, first the tostatura, toasting the rice in fat so that grains are completely coated and then slowly adding the well-flavoured stock, a ladleful at a time. More stock is added only when almost all the previous ladleful has vanished into the rice. Twenty or so minutes pass and as the rice reaches perfection he demonstrates the mantecato stage. Often ignored by many risotto makers, more butter and grated cheese are stirred into the cooked risotto and it is allowed to rest for a few minutes before serving. This step makes the risotto all’onda giving it that loose creamy texture that, as the chef says, “lets it ripple in thick waves across your plate”. That reminds me of the lagoon and that fabulous view.
However, the chef holds my attention by explaining why he believes Carnaroli rice to be “the king of rice" and the finest rice for risotto. To understand you must understand Italian rice. Often we think of Italy as a country of pasta and olive oil but in the north butter and rice are in every kitchen. For most Italians rice means a savoury risotto and to make it they grow Japonica rice varieties. These are short-grained sticky rices like Arborio and Vialone Nano that have high levels of the starches amylopectin and amylose. Arborio has the highest amount of amylopectin, the surface starch that melts during cooking to give the risotto its creamy texture. Vialone Nano on the other hand, has higher levels of the internal starch, amylose that keeps the grains firm giving the finished risotto its al dente texture.
Just after the Second World War Italian rice growers crossed Vialone Nano with a Japanese variety to create Carnaroli, a rice with a perfect balance of the two starches. It’s more expensive as it’s difficult to grow and harvest, and prone to disease but it makes a risotto that is both creamy and al dente. Another advantage of Carnaroli is that there is a longer time between when the rice is just cooked and when it is overcooked giving the cook more leeway. Chef doesn’t mention this advantage.
His risotto is perfect, rich, creamy and rippling across my plate like water reminding me of the lagoon outside. However, I’m glad I stayed to discover this new risotto rice. Best of all, the terrace, the view of St Marks Square, and the Bellini are still waiting for me.