If appearances are deceptive, the Pontifical Swiss Guard are why. They may look like extras from a Renaissance period film, but the troubadour-like uniforms betray these gilt-edged soldiers. With five centuries of near uninterrupted service under their bandoliers, the guards are one of the oldest functioning military units in the world. They have survived annihilation in battle, endured murder within their ranks, seen off an assassination attempt on a pope, and tolerated numberless group selfies with tourists.
Last year, the Swiss Guard did something else that solved all my problems in one fell swoop – they wrote a cookbook.
The Vatican City, although technically a country, is practically just another part of Rome, and hence has no local food culture to speak of. A Roman dish was a next best option, but didn’t feel right. I thought, what if I simply cooked something the popes ate? Enter the Vatican cookbook, a culinary chronicle of the papal palate from then till now. My dilemma of whether it was worth purchasing an entire cookbook for one recipe was solved by the availability of a few online sneak previews. The Risotto Al Vino Rosso looked pretty good.
Swinging 60s Soho may have lost its some of its unkempt edge, yet with all things food and drink, this Central London turf still holds court. No foodie trend is official until acknowledged at Soho. Anything you want to eat, there is good chance you will find it somewhere in Soho’s jumble of restaurants, dives, cafes and bakeries. It was late morning when we arrived, to an area still yawning and stretching in bed. There weren’t too many people about, though it was a pleasant change to experience Soho at a fraction of its usual volume. We criss-crossed the maze of streets, stopped for a coffee and arrived at Lina Stores, an Italian deli. Lina, now a Soho institution, was established in the 1940s, and built a reputation for its fresh pastas, breads, cured meats and cheeses. I got carnaroli rice, dried porcini mushrooms and a wedge of parmesan (parmigiano reggiano). The shop’s lime green awning and outdoor seating made me consider another espresso macchiato, but the skies had started to frown, and we decided to return before the rain started.
I soaked the dried mushrooms in water for about 30 minutes and squeezed them out, preserving the liquid. I fried a finely chopped shallot in a knob of butter, added the rice and mixed well until all the grains got a good coating. Then, I deglazed the rice with a splash each of red wine and marsala. Once the wines had evaporated, I added the porcini liquid and started the main act, coaxing the rice into risottohood with incremental splashes of vegetable stock. The rice slowly yielded to the constant stirring in a release of starch, and a few minutes before the end, I added the hydrated porcini mushrooms. The finished risotto, now a deep wooden colour, was transferred to plate and dusted with a light snowfall of grated parmesan.
There is much kerfuffle on the question of the perfect texture of a risotto. I think carnaroli is a generally forgiving rice, unless extremely undercooked or overcooked. My version was an adequate al dente, but what I found more satisfying about this dish was the flavour. The mushrooms and wine paired well, as they usually do. The earthiness of the porcini, the depth of the red wine and background notes of the marsala lifted the risotto to a much happier place. The parmesan willingly joined this congregation. A dish fit for a pope indeed. Amen!