And there I was, holding a fork bearing a clump of steaming risotto, trying to pay equal attention to the textures in the rice, the points of view wafting between the seated nine and being careful not to forget the wine. The risotto was perfectly done, not too mushy nor too hard, neither too cheesy or at all greasy and it went perfectly with the glass of white at my side.
I had walked into my host, Alessandro’s home, 20 minutes late, hoping he hadn’t started cooking, looking forward as I was to observing an Italian cook a quintessentially Italian dish in an Italian home. Commercial food at the end of the day is mass produced and cannot hold a candle to good home cooking, as much as they might dim the lights and glorify the chef. Fortunately, Alessandro hadn’t started on the risotto and a few minutes later, invited me into his kitchen.
A steel stockpot lay bubbling on the stove, a pile of frizzy, grated parmesan in a bowl alongside a little chopping board with sliced porcini mushrooms and another bowlful of soaked, drained and chopped mushrooms, just below a shelf with a glass container full of amber liquid – soaking saffron. The oven was cold and atop it was an aluminium roasting tray containing a thick tenderloin, tied with string, sprigs of rosemary jutting forth, the bottom of the tray covered with a roiling mixture of juices, wine and olive oil.
Beside it was a stack of plates with what looked like east European design, which I couldn’t help but fondle. “That Czechoslovakian dinner set was a present from my mother when I entered the diplomatic services”, said my host, noticing my interest.
In another corner was a kitchen scale laden with half a pack of Carnaroli rice. “I’m cooking for 10 people, so it’s 700 grams of rice”, said Alessandro, as he removed his jacket and stood in the middle of the kitchen rolling up white shirtsleeves. Preparing to make the first course of the evening, he quickly made the transition from diplomat to cook.
“You have to treat your risotto like your wife”, said the cook, “never leaving its side as it cooks and giving it all your attention until it is done”, and true to his words, he never left that pot for a single moment. “The rice must be touched as little as possible”, he added, in a somewhat contrasting addition to the ‘wife’ analogy.
There are very few sights as satisfying as watching a knob of butter melt in a hot pan and that’s what we started with. Moving on, the rice was toasted until the pot exuded the telltale aroma of roasting grain, at which point a few generous glugs of white wine were added. Some moments after, the cook shifted his attention to the bubbling stock pot. “The rice and the stock must be at the same temperature”, he murmured, as he ladled stock onto the rice, gently stirring around the edges until the stock was gone, leaving in its place a gentle creaminess that would be the high point of the dish later.
“I don’t like using too much butter in the house”, said the cook as he continued feeding ladle after ladle of stock to the rice, “but with risotto, there is no choice”. Simple words that highlight the importance of food, culture and tradition all at once. “Get yourself a spoon from that drawer there”, he instructed, “and taste some of this”, which I did. The rice wasn’t done yet, still bearing a bit of crunch, though it was getting creamier and I could taste the mild flavours of mushrooms, toasted grain and butter. I was looking forward to his definition of ‘al dente’. About 25 minutes after starting, the rice was pronounced done, saffron and mushrooms having been mixed in and word was sent from the kitchen to the guests, asking them to please be seated.
Then came the final and perhaps the most important step – the addition of large amounts of grated parmesan cheese and butter, the whole lot coming together to create a pot full of creamy, flavourful risotto. Turning his attention to the stack of plates, Alessandro ladled a portion of rice into each, smartly slapping the bottom until the rice spread out flat over the plate and passed it to Gloria, their cook, who garnished each platter with slices of porcini mushrooms and a few strands of saffron before sending it out to the dining room. A few minutes later, back in a jacket, the cook returned to being a host and we seated ourselves at the dining table.
So, there I was, eating fork fulls of that delicious, steaming risotto – creamy and buttery and cheesy and mushroomy, sipping a perfectly paired wine and quite content to sit back and listen to the conversation at the table.
Conversation is an underrated part of our meals, and judging by most couples I see dining out, a dying art too. Seated at our table were a historian, a hotelier, a bureaucrat and a food writer, mingled with a legation of diplomats, with perhaps three generations between the lot of us. The resultant waves of conversation were nuggets of experience, perception and opinion that one would be otherwise hardpressed to find – thoughts that were expressed with all the eloquence one gathers over a lifetime of living; every one at the table clearly had.
Our meal continued with slices of roast tenderloin, dollops of mashed potatoes, flavourful gravy, more wines and finished with a pie stuffed with delicately flavoured ricotta cheese and an assortment of chocolate truffles and bon bons.
I have no doubt there is finer food in my future, nor am I likely to find myself bereft of interesting company. Superlative versions of both however, at the right time, in the right place are unlikely to be found quite so quickly, making this an evening to remember.