What do the words ‘summer holiday’ evoke in the average, relatively grown-up person? For me, they kindle up existential magic. Throughout all my summer holidays at boarding school in England, life donned a special cloak of ‘alive-liness’. Even boring periods during the summer holidays were borne with an easy fortitude because, somehow, it didn’t really matter how Time decided it was going to span. Time manifested itself in countless ways, now slow, now fast, now exciting, now dreamy, with hours, days and weeks spinning by or dragging on depending on whereabouts, company and activities. Summer was never a time for ‘pining’, only for ‘living’.
And so it was that, when I became a mother with school-going children, I fervently looked forward to their summer holidays. No more having to go to bed early, no more ‘hurry up! hurry up! we’re going to be late for school’ in the mornings. The best thing about the summer holiday is the suspencion of regulatory time rules. It makes us feel free. We get a glimpse of eternity.
Summer holidays for the better part of the last twenty years entailed spending four to six weeks with my parents-in-law, in their house on the east coast of Italy, in the region called Le Marche. Long days spent on the beach, and most evenings eating dinner on the patio outdoors. The first two days were always fraught with some amount of tension and my husband and I could bicker quite a bit — it wasn’t the largest of houses and it was a bit like camping in many ways, because it entailed getting everyone ‘organised’. And then, magically, on the third day … boomph. The time hiatus would step in and life became balmy once more and the days would stretch into exercises in savouring. Savouring long hours spent in the sun, reading books, sometimes even re-reading dogeared books, enjoying chatter and conversation depending on the company — and savouring food of course.
Every morning (late), poring over newspapers or talking about absolutely nothing, the conversation would veer towards the only important event of the day — dinner. “So … what do we want to eat tonight?” and “Who’s going to do the shopping?” and “Are cousins Clara and Fenizio coming along too” … and so on. This might sound like hell for those who do not like to cook. For me, however, it was like being a child let loose in a playground. It was during these very long summer days that I learnt how to cook for a good-sized crowd and we thought nothing of organising a meal for 12 people and sometimes there would be 18 of us.
This was no grand house, with cavernous corridors and roomy sitting and dining rooms. The kitchen was tiny (and I mean tiny) and though we laid the table ‘properly’, it was a jumble of a collection and whatever china (croquery) and silver (cutlery) and glassware we used delectably bore the stamp of dispensability: it was either a leftover from home or something cheap and cheerful — and so we were never bothered about things breaking. It was all very low key … a perfect ambience for young children who are very good at breaking ‘things’ with their high jinks.
Not far from this tiny town on the hilltop lived a couple whom my husband got to know via a conference that he had organised. A couple of high brow professors, he of Italian origin, she French, living in Paris and this being the second marriage for both of them, and a little older than us. When I say ‘lived’, I mean they lived there during the vacations away from their respective universities. They had chanced driving through the area one summer, fell in love with the rural setting of it all, and sought a property which they ‘did up’ in style.
The style was mostly that of Danièle’s, a quintessentially elegant Frenchwoman if ever there was one. I just basked in sheer enjoyment when they invited us over for dinner, the cool, collected, orderly style of their very slim but three-storey house such a contrast to our hotchpotch holiday abode . This was the country after all, not a city location, and the way she managed to mix and meld large wicker baskets on the floor, containing fruit and veg, with quality artwork on the walls and just the right amount of décor and colour, prevented the atmosphere from showing too much allegiance to a minimalist persuasion. There was a lot of white everywhere …. white walls, white curtains, white bed covers, white towels, white tablecloth, white salt cellars (using used scallop shells), white candles …and yet the balance was somehow just right.
Never underestimate white.
As I recall, there was plenty of concession to the red in the wine, however, … and so maybe it is not true that the very first time she had us over for dinner, she made this white risotto that all of us in our family have come to adore. What I AM saying is that this risotto is as elegantly understated as is dear Danièle. Thank you for teaching me this recipe!
Sauté an onion in plenty of olive oil … do not ‘brown’ the onion, however. The heat must be gentle and so, add a little water if necessary. A pinch of salt helps too. This procedure is true for all risotti. This particular risotto also calls for pancetta (or guanciale). Cut some pancetta into matchstick-shapes and add to the frying pan.
When the onion has cooked into meek submission and is all nice and soft, add the rice and mix everything up and heat the rice until it turns transluscent almost. This is called ‘toasting’ the rice (“tostatura”).
By rights, the rice should be “tostato” on a high heat and the onion cooked on a low heat. If you want to do the excellently right thing, cook the onion separately and add it to the rice after it has been “tostato”. However, it tastes perfectly good like this too … Sometimes we are not in the mood for excellence.
Add a glass of white wine and NOW turn up the heat … we want the alcohol of the wine to evaporate. You can get around this, if you prefer, by bringing the wine to a boil beforehand, in a separate pan. This will also get rid of the alcohol.
Standing by, while you are getting the rice all oniony and toasty and boozy, should be a pot of simmering chicken stock or vegetable stock. If you are going to be re-a-lly lazy about it, hot water will do … but shame on you! Add one ladle at first, mix it in with the wooden spoon, allow the rice to absorb it all, and THEN add another ladle.
This looks very boring, I know … a post can’t make risotto-making exciting. But anyway, the last three photos above were Round 1 of the risotto ladling routine. Now would be the time to start another round ….
Got it? Add a pinch of salt every now and then and taste. Be careful, you don’t want it to be too salty. Grated parmesan cheese is going to be added at the end and that will add a lot of taste.
At this point, it’s a good idea to chop up a series of fresh herbs. Danièle used rosemary and parsely as I recall … I added some marjoram too to the mix. The only herb I wouldn’t use is mint for this kind of risotto.
Here are the lovely looking herbs.
Here is the little mountain of grated parmesan cheese.
About five minutes before the end of cooking time (usually total cooking time is 20 minutes), add the herbs. Can you see how nice and creamy the risotto is looking already?
Now is the time to really stir and stir and stir. Adding tiny amounts of the stock if necessary … don’t worry, the risotto just laps it up like cold waters to a thirsty soul.
As soon as the rice is cooked and you have switched off the heat, add two large dollops of butter (more even ….).
Then add the grated parmesan (can you see the pancetta peering through?).
Final touch: a couple of sprigs of rosemary (no chopping).
Cover with a lid and let the rice rest for about five minutes. This is called ‘la mantecatura’. I am sure that the word ‘mantecare’ must have something to do with the Spanish word for butter: ‘mantequilla’. The Italian word for butter is ‘burro’ — which in Spanish of course means donkey. I reckon that some Spanish chef, long ago, at the time of the Gonzaga family in Mantova, who knows?, decided to add butter (mantequilla) to a rice dish and that’s how the verb developed into ‘mantecare’ in Italian.
Off comes the lid …
And the ‘plain’, white risotto is served. Looks minimalist, tastes the opposite …
P.S. Have any of you read “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery? I read it during one of the summer holidays described above. I’m not saying the author can’t write … but I found the book irritatingly pretentious … and not AT ALL elegant for that very reason. She could do with taking a leaf out of Danièle’s book.