Risotto is one of the greatest culinary inventions. It’s not just a dish, but an idea – a creative concept which manages, in a totally original way, to make a magical dish with numerous variations out of a humble foundation. Reading through what I’ve just written, that sounds rather overblown – something I don’t usually like – but I’ll leave it like that for emphasis. It’s true, risottos are magically addictive. There is a whole culture behind them that I think is really worth learning about, before embarking on whichever recipe variation you’ve chosen – and believe me they’re limitless!
For practical reasons, the introduction to risottos and all the secret tips have been divided into sections.
A pizzico history. Leaving aside the fact that it’s made from rice, the risotto, a Northern Italian main dish, bears no resemblance to rice dishes originating elsewhere. It is not a pilaf, a juicy stuffing or the spicy Indian biriyani, Spanish paella or Cretan gamopilafo. Even though the exact whereabouts of its origin are unknown, historians tend to place it around Venice, the crossroads of merchants and explorers in olden times. Others maintain that the dish comes from southern Italy, near Naples, the then-base of the Saracen forces, who brought the variety of rice to Italy from the Far East. The Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza wrote a letter in 1475 to the Duke of Ferrara, promising a gift of twelve sacks of rice for sowing, proving that rice was already in the Po valley, between Piemonte and Lombardia, where the climatic conditions (temperature, humidity, abundance of water) were ideal for its cultivation. Whatever the truth, though, the risotto is to Northern Italy, what pasta is to the rest of the country. As a speciality of Piemonte, Lombardia and Triveneto (Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige/Sudtirol and Friuli-Venezia Giulia) they have provided the culinary world with a host of risotto dishes using local produce and their own particular ways of preparing it.
The well-known risotto con tartufo bianco – more often known as risotto alla piemontese– is made with the famous white truffles from Alba (Piemonte). The risotto al Barolo is made with Barolo wine, while the porcini which is produced in the Piemonte hills is used with mushrooms in various risotto recipes. In Milan, capital of Lombardia, the risotto alla Milanese was born ( I will write about the recipe and its history another time). The wonderful cheeses of the region, such as gorgonzola, taleggio and marscapone make beautifully creamy risottos, while the fish versions come from the lakes and water near Como, Varese and Mantova. As we move further east towards Veneto, the dishes in Padua are full of vegetables: the risotto al radicchio is named after the local vegetable from Treviso as far as Verona. Lastly, Venice is associated with black risotto (risotto nero), coloured with squid ink, while many seafood risottos are local delicacies the whole way along the coast.
What is risotto? The risotto is an easy (yes, you read that correctly), nutritious, cheap, varied starter (for the Italians), which becomes so delicious and moreish that you can’t get enough of it. The basic ingredient is the rice grain – short-grain, or at most, medium-grain – curved on the one side, angular on the other, with a high starch content (amylopectin and amylase). The rice therefore has the following characteristics: a) it can absorb flavour from other ingredients much more than other types of rice and b)it merges with the cooking liquid becoming creamy and, if the plate is tipped, forming waves ( -onda). This is why the perfect risotto is said to be all’onda, in the same way as the perfect pasta is al dente.
So, when you eat risotto in Italy (or properly-made risotto at, for example, my house or yours!) you experience – and enjoy – the velvety texture of the dish from the first forkful to the last. Every grain of rice rolls in its creamy base…all’onda, remaining firm, with a bite to it as if a hard heart is hidden inside it. This is what gives the risotto its unique quality and we will see how this is achieved step by step. Believe me, it’s incredibly easy to make it as impressively as if you were Milanese by birth!