As Osteria Francescana becomes the first Italian restaurant to reach the top of the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Gastronomic Diff presents one of the million tales that could compose the gastronomic life story of the great Massimo Bottura.
“Risotto cacio e pepe” means “cheese and pepper risotto”. About four years ago those four words put together started to mean a little bit more than that.
Two severe earthquakes, the first one on May 20 2012, and the second one 9 days later, left the people of Emilia-Romagna, North Italy in shock. 27 casualties, 45,000 people left homeless, historical buildings leveled and the region on the brink of economic collapse. To the incalculable funds needed for the restoration of the damages one had to add the loss of €200 million worth of wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Pandano that had been shattered from falling from the high shelves on which they had been left to age.
Cheese production, you see, is one of the region’s main sources of income and Parmigiano Reggiano is so greatly appreciated a product that local banks allow its producers to use it as guarantee for bank loans. Yes, this may not be official Wall Street practice (But hey! Who are they to judge?) but keep in mind that this is a really unique place we’re talking about. The Emilia-Romagna region is arguably the gastronomic capital of Italy. Think Bologna and Reggio. Think Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano. Think Balsamico di Modena. Think Parmalat and Barilla, Europe’s pasta and sauce kings. Think Ragù Bolognese and tortellini. If someone ever told you that you would have to live out of the produce of a single Italian region as punishment, you’re good to laugh at their face, preferably with the devious laughter of a villain after announcing their evil plans.
Despite the moving support of the Italians and other Europeans who came forward to buy broken pieces of (not market-friendly) cheese, that would have to be thrown away if not consumed on time, more had to be done in order to contain the catastrophe. Only 45 km away from the epicenter of the first earthquake and a few blocks from Modena’s latterly damaged old church lies Osteria Francescana, recently awarded as the earth’s best restaurant by what has quite recently become the most reputable source of restaurant assessment (sorry Michelin Guide!). Massimo Bottura, its Chef, is the obvious choice, as the one to channel his creativity in support of the cause. Obvious, not only because he is native to Modena and one of the most important chefs worldwide: Also because this emphatically Italian skinny fellow genuinely looks like the sort of person that goes around hugging people when they aren’t looking.
What came out of this, somewhat romantic, project impeccably reflected the reeling country’s mentality and “challenged” its people to do what they do best: get together to eat. Which brings us, exactly six months after the horror, to October the 27th aka “Parmigiano-Reggiano Night”. The idea, brilliant yet simple, had a quarter of a million people having dinner “together”. Everyone was having “Risotto cacio e pepe” at 8 o’clock in the evening. The recipe, that had been produced by Chef Bottura and sold in easy-to-cook packages was a spin on the traditional pasta dish “cacio e pepe”. The Chef and his team, as he puts it, “borrowed an iconic Roman spaghetti dish…and transformed it into an Emilian symbol of hope and recovery”. He combined the classic flavors of the dish while using rice instead of spaghetti to reflect the eating culture of northern Italy and of course Parmigiano-Reggiano.
People got together with friends and ate it at home. Even restaurants had it as an off-menu option for the ones that preferred to go out that night. The feast, not totally incomparable to the (definitely less vegetarian and a tiny bit less gourmet) ones that took place in Asterix’s village, that gave the Gauls the strength to keep fighting, was a huge success.
Chef Bottura had once spiked spiked controversy with his “six tortellini” dish for “offending” Italian food and its plentiful spirit. That was, of course, before the he had won three stars or Osteria Francescana appeared anywhere near fancy lists with dispronouncable names of restaurants that often smell of truffles. That night, however, he did not propose Michelin-starred restaurant portions as a prerequisite. Not at all. Heavy eating was actually encouraged, in a dinner which inevitably overflew the country with love, solidarity, the healing of hurt souls and the consumption of broken wheels of parmesan.
Here’s the recipe if you want to give it a go:
Ingredients for the parmesan broth:
2 lb. Parmigiano Reggiano, coarsely grated
Ingredients for the risotto:
6 cups parmesan broth
1⁄3 cup parmesan cream
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
3 medium shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups Arborio rice
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Parsley leaves, for garnish
From the previous day:
Make the parmesan broth: Combine parmesan and 8 1⁄2 cups water in a medium-sized (6 quart) saucepan over medium-low. When the cheese becomes stringy, remove from heat. Let cool to room temperature, and repeat heating once more. Refrigerate broth 8 hours or overnight.
The next day, the broth should have separated into 3 distinct layers: a cream layer, on top; a broth layer, in the middle; and solids, on the bottom. Carefully remove the top cream layer and reserve. Strain the broth, discarding remaining solids (bottom layer).
Make the risotto: Heat broth in a small (4 quart) saucepan over medium heat; set aside and keep warm. Heat butter in a medium-sized (6 quart) saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic to saucepan; cook, stirring, until soft, 3 minutes. Add rice; cook 2 minutes. Add reserved stock 1⁄2 cup at a time, cooking until each addition is absorbed before adding more. Cook, stirring often, until rice is tender and creamy, about 20-22 minutes. Stir in parmesan cream and cracked pepper; garnish with parsley leaves.
Recommended further watching/reading:
Episode: “Massimo Bottura” of the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table
Massimo Bottura’s book: Never Trust A Skinny Italian Chef.
Bottura, M. (2014) Massimo Bottura: Never trust a skinny Italian chef. Edited by Yvonne Twisk. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.
“Massimo Bottura”, (2015) Chef’s Table, Season 1, episode 1, Netflix Directed by David Gelb.
Olmsted, L. (2012) The biggest Italian dinner in history, thanks to social media. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2012/10/17/the-biggest-italian-dinner-in-history-thanks-to-social-media/#771fcf1d4f08 (Accessed: 28 June 2016).
Pandolfi, K. (2014) Massimo Bottura’s revolutionary Risotto. Available at: http://www.saveur.com/article/food/massimo-botturas-revolutionary-risotto (Accessed: 28 June 2016).
Piggot, S. (2012) The great parmesan rescue: Why the superb Italian cheese is worth saving. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/the-great-parmesan-rescue-why-the-superb-italian-cheese-is-worth-saving-8344337.html (Accessed: 28 June 2016).