Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Acquerello is “the Rolls Royce of rice"

I brought the spoon to my mouth. On it, a few grains of creamy white risotto. The grains held their shape as I played with them between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, rolling them around. The risotto looked like it had been made with only rice and stock. The only ingredient I could discern was rice and so I erroneously expected something bland. The grain itself was so flavourful that I immediately understood the chef’s choice to keep the dish simple: so that the rice could shine. Among the layers of flavour, I tasted notes of toasted nuts, (almost smoky) oak, salty Parmesan and hints of umami (likely from a chicken stock). The dish was so special, so refined to perfection that I was able to keep my composure and eat at an appropriate pace. (Despite being tempted by the sizable flat spoon, which would have made an effective shovel.)

The large, flat plate showcased the single layer of pearly rice – each moist grain covered in a light sauce and dusted with Parmesan. It was far from the sticky, starchy risotto that I’m used to, which made me consider that perhaps the chef had cooked the risotto, rinsed it and then covered it lightly with sauce.  If this was the case, the steps were too ingenious to be called cheating. In the centre of the risotto, a small white rectangle of lardo sat atop a small heap of smoked eggplant, encircled by dots of purple lavender oil. Cold and sweet, the lardo added depth; the tangy eggplant brightened the dish; and the lavender brought out the floral notes of the grain. By creating a dish that highlighted the rice so entirely, it was apparent the chef was presenting a product that he admired. He had even written the brand of risotto he had used on the menu: Acquerello.

When I returned home that night I went straight to the computer to find out what exactly made Acquerello risotto so different from any risotto I had ever had.

Risottos and paellas are best made from medium grain rice, which can absorb liquid while remaining firm. Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking, that medium-grained rice, which is 2-3 times longer that it is wide, contains less amylose (starch in the centre of the grain) than long-grain rice and therefore requires less water when cooking. The grains are able to cook until tender without becoming starchy.  That is, the grains cling to each other, but they don’t stick. The starch content, with the addition of stock, is what creates the sauce for the rice. A well-made risotto should look like pearls of rice within a sauce, not a gluey mash. The starch content and size of Acquerello’s Carnaroli rice are the foundations for a perfect risotto.

Although Arborio may come to mind when searching for rice to make risotto, many risotto lovers prefer Carnaroli or the lesser known, Vialone Nano. Arborio rice makes a stickier, starchier risotto because the grains do not absorb liquid as well. If Arborio is all you can find, superfino is your best option, as its starch content results in a creamy -- not sticky -- risotto. At The French Laundry in California, Chef Thomas Keller cheats a little by folding in a bit of whipped cream to his finished risotto to give it a lighter consistency! Chefs around the world prefer Carnaroli and don’t mind spending a bit more for such a special product. It has been called the “caviar of rice” – and although it isn’t as expensive as caviar, it does cost more than Arborio. Carnaroli is one of the most difficult types of rice to grow, and therefore expensive – compared to other types of rice. The Cheese Boutique sells 500g tins (enough for about 6 portions) of Acquerello for $10.99.

Acquerello means watercolour, a name perhaps inspired by the picturesque Piedmont landscape, where the rice is grown. Just outside of Livorno Ferraris, in the province of Vercelli (the rice capital of Europe), 140 hectares of bright green rice paddies surround the beautiful clay-coloured Colombara estate. In the distance, the white Alps pierce the crisp blue sky. For three generations, this is where the Rondolino family has grown Carnaroli rice for their company, Acquerello.

Acquellero’s Carnaroli rice is organic and environmentally friendly; much of the planting, weeding and harvesting is done by hand. The paddyfields of growing rice provide a thriving ecosystem for including frogs, dragonflies and herons.

In October. ninety percent of Acquerello rice is harvested and aged for one year. The other ten percent is aged for three years. As the raw rice matures in chilled silos, oxygen changes the chemical composition of the outer layer of starch (called amylopectin); the rice becomes less water-soluble, meaning it is able to absorb more liquid. The high amylose content of Carnaroli is like the backbone for the rice – maintaining the grain’s shape as it absorbs all that liquid. The cooked grains are larger than most risotto and far more flavorful. The outer layer contains the most flavour, and so it is important that when the rice is milled, this outer layer is not damaged. Using a method abandoned by many rice cultivators, the Rondolino family uses a propeller to gently tumble the rice, which polishes the rice over ten minutes, as opposed to the rough six second refining method used most often in northern Italy today.

To show off each grain of rice, risotto must be a homogenous dish, with the silky liquid holding together the grains in a single layer. You can achieve this perfect presentation by ensuring you start by toasting your medium-grain rice. Toasting releases the rice’s natural nutty flavour, but it also brings the rice closer to the temperature (70-73°C) required for the starches to lose their crystalline structure in order to absorb more liquid. This temperature differs with both short and long grain rice. It’s not necessary to stick a thermometer into your rice – not at all – but it is important to keep your flavourful stock just below simmering (80°C) in a separate pot so that when you ladle it into your rice, the temperature remains constant. Taste often and season along the way. When the grains still hold their shape, but are no longer crunchy, your risotto is done. Off the heat, add a knob of cold butter and a few tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan to give the risotto a nice sheen, and then call your guests to the table. When you are plating, ladle a scoop in the centre of your plate and smack the bottom of the plate to disperse the risotto into a single layer of rice.

Around the world, Michelin starred and award winning chefs cook with Acquerello rice. Heston Blumenthal, alchemist and chef at The Fat Duck in London, England chooses his risotto rice based on texture, mouth feel, creaminess, and one that is not too sticky. He uses Acquellero risotto to create his perfect risotto: served with toasted rice butter, frozen saffron butter and mushroom powder.

French chef, Alain Ducasse has praised Acquerello as, “the Rolls Royce of rice".

Grown with love (and organically!), Acquerello rice has it all: complex layers of flavour, the perfect starch content, and the approval of chefs around the world. If you cannot find Acquerello, use any brand of Carnaroli rice. As long as it is made with love, your risotto will be perfect.


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