Many a cookbook reviewer will start their article with statements of impartiality, even-handedness and cool, professional aloofness. Not me. On this occasion, at least. I am pinning my culinary colours to Valentina Harris’s gastronomic mast with a degree of unashamed pride.
This lady has been a supporter of Italian wine, produce and cooking for decades. What better ambassador for all things delicious could Italy have than this chef with such impeccable Italian social pedigree? She has cooking credentials gathered almost from the cradle.
Valentina spoke to me about her start in food. “This is 1947 or 48, and in this ruined but beautiful house and on the land around it are living all these refugees from the war. The one person who was allowed to stay was a man called Beppino. He had been a chef before the war, had become detached from his platoon and ended up at La Tambura. From the moment I, at age 10 days, first set eyes on him he became everything to me. He was in his thirties, and he grew the vegetables, kept the chickens and the rabbits, harvested the grapes and the olives. I followed him like a little shadow! I grew up with this philosophy in my head: ‘Don’t mess with the food!’ long before anyone else.
“Before the war Beppino had been the risotto chef at Savini in the Galleria in Milan, so if he didn’t know about risotto, nobody would. A lot of people in the industry, as a result of my slightly obsessive nature, call me the ‘Risotto Queen’! It is my ‘thing’ and it was all because of those simple afternoons in the kitchen, he standing there taking me through it, making the stock together. It was like getting a masterclass every day that we were there.”
And here it is – the paper representation of a life in risotto. The cover is simple and clean with formal ranks of grains of rice and the bold and simple title, Risotto! Risotto! There are plenty of coloured pictures to tempt one into the kitchen. Once the basic technique of cooking rice is mastered then it’s really down to sourcing the best of ingredients, and success is assured.
This is a classic dish which doesn’t demand costly gadgets or an inclination towards rocket science to prepare. Valentina writes clear recipes to give confidence to the novice and inspiration to the more experienced domestic cook. Yes, perhaps that’s the secret to Valentina’s success as a cookbook author: she learnt her risotto craft from a chef but in a home environment.
Risotto! Risotto! isn’t just a recipe book, though. It’s about the history and evolution of this staple grain. Valentina has the advantage of being able to recount her own family association with rice and that started as far back as 1475, when the Dukes of Milan (yes, that is her family) promoted rice growing!
It’s hard to pick one favourite recipe from this charming book. Risotto alla Parmigiana would be on my list for its taste and texture and ‘comfort food’ factor. Risotto al Gorgonzola is another cheese-based dish but it’s an absolute winner and classy too! Valentina offers the very different barley risotto which is hearty and sweet with caramelised onions balanced by a little more cheese. Mushroom risotto is always popular and here it is. Brown Shrimp Risotto is a star and rice with seafood is luxurious and unmissable.
The book offers support, anecdotes, practicality and good taste. It is, in short, everything that a good cookbook should be. In these times of belt-tightening this book encourages us to prepare delicious, good value dishes – dishes that will sustain as family meals and impress as dinner-party fare. It’s a book that will likely spend more time in the kitchen than on the book shelf.
Author: Valentina Harris
Published by: Absolute Press
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018