I have just returned from a frenetic trip to Italy, mostly spent whizzing around Chianti, the hilly wine district that lies between Florence and Siena. I then finished off with five days in Rome.
Apart from seeing the sights, I was there to sample the Tuscan and Roman approach to food and eating first-hand. This was my second visit to Italy and I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as Italian cooking per se. Italian cuisine is more about specific regions - and how each region's cooking is dictated by its produce.
The best meals I had there were at simple, often family-run places. I frequently found more sophisticated restaurants to be a little disappointing, with the exception of Badia a Coltibuono, where I had an excellent long lunch on the terrace. If Italians are united in one thing, it is an obsession with fresh, seasonal fare and how to cook and present it in a straightforward manner.
We were in Greve in Chianti on market day. Porcini mushrooms were in season and appeared in almost every stall. I had a bag of farro from the previous day's visit to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. After a quick stop in the famous Falorni butcher's shop and a longer one at the enoteca, we were set.
Farro is an ancient wild wheat, grown since prehistoric times in the Mediterranean basin. In the Garfagnana region of Tuscany, this delicious barley-like grain has its own IGP (or Indicazione Geografica Protetta) and is protected by law. The Roman legions marched on a diet of savoury grains.
The house we were sharing with friends had, to say the least, a rudimentary kitchen, with the most useless set of pots I have ever been confronted with. A simple meal was in order: fennel salad and a selection of salumi and pecorino cheeses, followed by a steaming pot of farrotto with mushrooms and radicchio. As the name suggests, this dish is cooked like a risotto, but it doesn't require as much attention during cooking and can also sit a while before serving.
Keith Froggett is co-owner and executive chef of Scaramouche in Toronto.
Keith Froggett's Farrotto
Mushrooms and radicchio
1 head radicchio, quartered lengthways through the stem so that it stays together
1 pound king oyster mushrooms, also quartered lengthways
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Preheat a grill to high; toss the radicchio in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over high heat until wilted and slightly charred on the edges. Repeat with the mushrooms. When both are cool enough to handle, remove the stem of the radicchio and run a knife through the quarters to make large bite-size pieces. Cut the mushrooms into similar-sized chunks. This can be prepared well in advance and left at room temperature until required.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, finely diced (optional)
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, crushed
1 pound farro
½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
½ cup robust red wine (optional)
8 cups chicken stock
½ cup or more freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter.
1 teaspoon white truffle oil (optional)
Heat a large saucepan over medium heat; add half the olive oil, pancetta, onion and garlic. Cook until aromatic and the onion has softened. Add the dried porcini, farro and thyme; season with salt and pepper, stir to coat everything in the oil. Pour in the red wine, bring to a boil and add enough chicken stock to just cover the farro. Continue cooking uncovered, maintaining a steady simmer, stirring from time to time and adding more stock as required, à la risotto. After about 25 minutes the farro will start to become chewy-tender; at this point do not add any more stock.
Continue cooking until the remaining stock has almost been absorbed by the farro. If you find the farro still too firm, add a small amount of stock and cook a little longer. When you are satisfied that the farro has a pleasant chewy-tender texture, add the mushrooms and radicchio, stir in well and remove from the heat. Leave for a minute and then stir in the Parmesan, butter and truffle oil. Finish by stirring in the remaining olive oil. Serves 6 to 8.
Colour matters little here from a technical standpoint - you could easily go white instead of red, depending on preference. But this is a dish where Italian wine really is almost mandatory. There's a subtle bitterness to many good Italian whites that will resonate with the radicchio and a woodsy, mushroom-like note in many reds. Consider a good soave from the Veneto, Gavi from Piedmont or, my personal favourite, ¬ a Greco di Tufo from central Italy. Among reds, good bargain choices include montepulciano d'Abruzzo and barbera. Higher up the price ladder, there's Chianti, Morellino di Scansano or vino nobile di Montepulciano. If you don't mind splurging, consider Barbaresco or Barolo.