Italian Table Talk: Risotto in Cantina
September in Italy is largely regarded as the season for la vendemmia, the wine harvest, when most of the peninsula is busy picking the grapes that have been carefully tended to over the year. Some regions have already done it by August – places like Puglia’s far south where the intense heat ripens the local grapes fast, or up north in Lombardy where the delicate sparkling Franciacorta wines require grapes with higher acidity.
Naturally, for this month’s Italian Table Talk, we’re discussing wine harvest-inspired food. An overflowing pot of grape, fig and wild apple jam is on the stove in Juls Kitchen, Valeria from Life Love Food is preparing grape must pudding or sugoli, and Jasmine from Labna is making my favourite Tuscan bakery item of the season, grape schiacciata. I couldn’t go past a recipe I read about a long time ago in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food (first published in 1954, this revelation was one of the first original English language books to fully explain authentic regional Italian cuisine).
It’s called Risotto in Cantina, or “risotto in the wine cellar”. A recipe from the Veneto in Italy’s northeast, David admits that she has never tried it herself but that its description comes from an “eminently respectable” source – a 1967 volume called Italy at Table, published by the Italian State Tourist Board. The brief recipe is quoted exactly as follows:
First you prepare a simple risotto cooked in broth and enriched with Parmesan and butter. When the risotto is served, a glass of dry, slightly sharp, white wine is poured into each soup plate and the risotto put on top. The wine, heated by the risotto, takes on a slightly effervescent quality, extremely pleasant to the palate. The wine must not be mixed with the risotto; each forkful is dipped in as one eats it.
It’s an unusual way of serving risotto; I can’t help but think that it’s one of those recipes that come about by accident – someone accidentally spilling their glass of wine onto their plate and realising what a wonderful effect it had!
David goes to much effort to put right the ways of English-readers and recipe-writers who have long been using the wrong rice to make a true risotto (this is even in the edition that was re-worked in 1987). It is the rice that makes a risotto unique. It’s what gives it’s all-important texture, consistency and even flavour, especially in a risotto as simple as this one.
Arborio and Carnaroli are probably the most well-known types of risotto rice, but Vialone Nano is wonderful too, if not one of the best varieties for risotto. These short-grained, pearly rices are high in starch and create a creamy risotto while keeping their bite. There is nothing worse than an overcooked, mushy risotto or a sticky one that you could shape into a castle. It should be at that perfect consistency with enough creamy liquid that makes the risotto all’onda, wave-like. It will continue to cook in its own heat so it’s quite easy to go past this ideal stage.
David states two very important things in her description of this risotto that are just as valid today as they would have been in the 80s or in the 50s when the book was originally published (just think, more than sixty years on and so many still have not caught on!):
One, “In a good and conscientious restaurant, say in Milan or Venice or Turin, you must wait for your risotto just as in a French restaurant you would expect to wait for your soufflé.” A risotto takes about 17 minutes to cook. If you want a proper risotto, (that is, not a partially pre-cooked one), that’s how long you will need to wait for it.
And two, “Don’t by the way, look for good risotti in Florence and Tuscany. Tuscany cooks, at any rate in my experience, don’t know how to make a correct risotto any more than do French or English ones.” It is still true – you do not go to Tuscany to try risotto, just as you do not go there to try authentic pizza. You go to the north, Lombardy or particularly the Veneto, for the best risotto. They are the experts.
This risotto is so simple, but in no way it is plain. It is actually a wonderful example of letting risotto speak for itself. Ultimately the wine lends it much of its flavour, so choose wisely – a young white grape, preferably not aromatic or oaked, such as a Soave or even a pinot grigio. It would be a perfect primo, or first course, or even a simple lunch served with a rocket salad on the side.
Risotto in Cantina
Based on a description in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food
For 4 serves
- 1 medium brown onion
- 320 gr rice (such as Carnaroli, Arborio or Vialone Nano varieties)
- 600 ml of homemade vegetable or chicken stock, heated
- 70 gr Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated finely
- 40 gr cold butter
- Olive oil
- 2 glasses of dry, white wine, such as a Soave or pinot grigio, preferably from the Veneto region
Chop the onion finely and sauté gently over low heat in a deep pot with some olive oil and a bit of the butter until translucent but not browned. Add the rice and toss to coat in the butter and oil, letting it ‘toast’ for a few minutes or until the rice kernels appear translucent around the edges.
The stock should be heated before adding it to the rice. Homemade is obviously the best in terms of flavour, as they are usually less salty than store bought or dreaded stock cubes. Chicken stock is not commonly used in Italy, but a good, mild homemade one would be very suitable.
Add a ladleful of hot stock and turn the heat up to low-medium. Stir gently with a wooden spoon, adding ladles of stock as the liquid gets absorbed by the rice and repeat until the liquid is used up and the rice is al dente, tender but firm. As the rice cooks and releases starch, you should notice the liquid becoming creamy. Keep in mind what was mentioned above, that the rice continues to cook so you want to make sure there is enough liquid in the pan when you take it off the heat that it won’t dry out completely.
Taking the pan off the heat, toss the rest of the cold butter and half of the grated Parmesan cheese through the risotto – a technique called mantecare in Italian, which derives from the Spanish word for butter, manteca, and specifically means to combine butter with the sauce in a risotto (or pasta) for a creamy consistency. Talk about Italians and their food language!
Serve immediately, with extra Parmesan on top or on the side. David’s quote from the original recipe says to first pour the white wine in the dish and then place the risotto on top; I’ve done the opposite but feel free to stick to the original.
Eat without stirring the rice into the wine.