Truffle, risotto and perfect pasta from Georgio Locatelli
“The problem with the French”, said Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli, “is they make really complicated recipes and then put a little bit of truffle on top. I want a simple dish with a lot of truffle on top that will really bring out the flavour of the truffle”.
I have eaten truffle before but it has always been in the former incarnation. And here I was, back at Atlantis, at Ronda Locatelli for a cooking class from the eponymous chef, and white truffle was the key ingredient.
I felt like an excited school girl about this, and not just for the cookery. Giorgio appeared, a little more grey than I anticipated but with floppy hair and that droopy-eyed Italian look and slightly craggy face that makes him look like he’s spent too much time in a rugby scrum. Swoon. As soon as he started talking about truffles I was under a very different spell. He’s charming and erudite, as you would expect from a highly successful chef on TV, but the knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject interspersed with little anecdotes from his childhood, had everyone in the room (mainly people from media and PR) rapt.
A large bowl of knobbly truffles were passed round so we could inhale the scent. It was intense and the precious cargo were swiftly covered up and whipped back to the fridge to preserve their flavour.
I could write a whole essay on the truffle with information from Giorgio and his truffle hunter side-kick Carlo but I’ll restrain myself to a few snippets. Truffles became a present that kings gave to kings but they started as peasant food with the poor foraging for something to enliven the plain pasta and rice for a couple of months of the year. Only within the last twenty years has truffle mania seen the prices rise and truffle dealing take place as it has been traded like other commodities.
The Italians use dogs rather than pigs to hunt truffles as they are more communicative with humans so the nuances of the ripeness of the truffle can be gauged. The treatment of these dogs prior to a truffle hunt may not bear close scrutiny (I’m betting the Italians don’t have an equivalent of the RSPCA) and the treatment of humans on a truffle hunt was a bit extreme too. G. and his mates were shut away in a hut in the woods and not allowed to wash or use toothpaste for 24 hours. Woken at the crack of dawn they were given a breakfast of ham and red wine (bread and truffle is reserved for the dog’s breakfast and when they emerge “go crazy mad”). Spores do not travel more than 35-40 metres so the general area is known where the dogs are left to roam. Here’s Giorgio’s quick guide to doggy truffle-hunting language:
Dog uses one paw to dig = truffle not ripe
Dog uses two paws to dig = truffle semi-ripe
Dog uses both paws and sticks his nose right in = perfect
As soon as the truffle leaves the ground it stops ripening and is at it’s very best eaten there and then. We were given some truffle butter to taste but Giorgio was absolute disparaging about truffle oil. The formula for the truffle has been discovered (by the Austrians!) so the flavouring for most oils is a chemical compound. “You can tell by the burp” Giorgio expostulated, “real truffle doesn’t repeat”! Neither G or Carlo use oil or butter unless it’s homemade.
In Giorgio’s opinion the most delicious way to eat fresh truffle is on fried eggs. He then prepared some gourmet alternatives starting by making fresh pasta which he turned into ravioli filled with pomme puree (fine mashed potatoes with truffle butter) with an egg yolk on top. These were served with generous shaving of truffle and some parmesan. We all passed round a plateful to share – sublime doesn’t get near the taste and texture. And looking back, this was the dish that showed off the flavour of the truffle best.
We then swooped on every plate that Giorgio produced; Tagliolini with beurre fondue (a luxurious sauce made of butter and cream), cups of pomme puree frothed up with air (sounds rather cheffy but it was divine) and a risotto – all bringing out the musky flavour of the truffle that it was topped with.
Again more historical information ( Mussolini was responsible for the spread of rice-growing from some regions to all across Italy) and little snippets of Giorgio’s boyhood where he stood on a beer crate in his parents’ restaurant and stirred risotto and bechamel. I have read masses of cook books, watched programmes about pasta and risotto making but I learned more about them in those couple of hours to bring a new understanding into my cooking. I’ve listed the top three most useful tips.
Top 3 tips to make perfect pasta from Giorgio Locatelli
- Make the pasta the day before and leave it to rest overnight in the fridge.
- Pay more attention to how you feed the dough through the machine than how you crank the handle .
- Don’t use too much flour when rolling it out. If the pasta dough sticks to the machine the dough is too wet. G used practically no flour for the ravioli and a little for the tagliolini just to separate the strands once they were cut.
The risotto was a revelation. Just a bit of chopped onion, superfino carnaroli rice (“the most elegant”) and chicken stock (no wine today because of where we were, but he would normally recommend it). He added cold butter and parmesan at the end off the heat (mantecatura).
This time there was no sharing, we all had a dainty little dish of the sublime risotto and white truffle to ourselves. I’m glad because I might have fought someone for this.
The session was over too soon and I thanked the man himself and told him my risotto didn’t taste like his. He said, in his languid accent, “you can do it. My wife’s a rubbish cook and she can make risotto” !
Top 3 tips to make perfect risotto from Giorgio Locatelli
- Do not use cream or mascarpone (like bad restaurants do).
- You can tell if risotto is cooked perfectly by the appearance of the grains – an aura of translucency and a pin of white.
- At the end of cooking you should let the risotto rest. You can tell if it is the right consistency by the sound it makes when vigorously stirred (like porridge). It should have enough liquid to have a slight ripple (like the water in Venice) which Giorgio called all’onda (waves). The exception is in the South of Italy where they make risotto firmer, more like a cake. Then you add the mantecatura.
Note: Never cook risotto while wearing shorts as the grains retain heat – about 160 C..ouch!
You can see Giorgio in action making pasta on TV. And here’s the recipe for just one of the things we tasted. If you do manage to get hold of a white truffle (which you can buy for 40 AED per gram at the restaurant or go and stay with Carlo and hunt your own) I strongly recommend it. Otherwise the special truffle menu is available from October 28th 2010 at Ronda Locatelli at Atlantis Palm Jumeirah. These particular gourmet white truffles (Tuber Magnatum Pico) are from the grounds of Carlo’s San Pietro a Pettine Estate and I’m already looking for an excuse to go back and taste them again paired with this traditional-style Italian cooking.
Parmesan Risotto with White Truffle by Giorgio Locatelli
(Risotto al Tartufo Bianco)
2.5 litres good chicken stock
1 onion, chopped very, very finely
400g superfino carnaroli rice
125ml dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the mantecatura
75g cold butter, cut into small dices
100g finely grated Parmesan cheese
Method for the risotto
- You need to have a pan of hot stock ready on the hob, next to where you are going to make your risotto.
- You begin with the soffritto, which is the base of the risotto. Making this involves sautéing onions – and sometimes garlic – in butter.
- Next you have the tostatura, the ‘toasting’ of the rice in this mixture so that every grain is coated and warmed up and will cook uniformly. At this point, you usually stir in a glass of wine and let it evaporate before beginning to add hot stock.
- Now you start adding your stock slowly (a ladleful at a time) and when each addition is almost absorbed, you add the next one, stirring almost continuously so that the heat is distributed through the mixture and you achieve the rubbing away and dissolving of the starch around the outside of the rice, without breaking the grains.
- When the rice is ready, tender but still al dente, you need to rest the risotto (just for 30 seconds), turn off the heat, and without stirring, decrease the temperature.
- Finally add butter and cheese.
- This last step is the mantecatura, the beating in of butter and cheese which helps gives the modern risotto its unique consistency.
- Add 1 teaspoon of truffle butter along with the parmesan (and a little veal sauce).
- Shave the white truffle on top.
Then you are ready to serve – and the sooner it is eaten the better!
The egg yolk and potato parcel recipe is on chef Robert Conaway’s blog who is from West 14th restaurant (also on The Palm).
My pictures aren’t great as the lighting was so low but I hope they’ll give you an idea of the atmosphere (and I regret not plucking up the courage to ask for one of me and the man himself). I am now officially a Locatelli fan.