The first risotto I had was at an Italian restaurant on the Bailey in Durham, near the cathedral. It was a tomato risotto. I ate it begrudgingly, wondering in what sort of mad world a restaurant thought it was acceptable to charge money for a plate of red coloured stodgy rice. It struck me as the sort of thing you might make if you had almost nothing in your kitchen cupboard. My friend Sophie made me a more exciting risotto some months later with cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and peas, which I enjoyed. I used to make butternut squash risotto sometimes when I was a postgrad student, enjoying the slow process of adding stock and stirring, adding stock and stirring.
But now I am driven mad by risotto. Everywhere I go, there is only risotto. Nothing but risotto. When I got engaged, once we’d stopped laughing and kissing and I’d become slightly less distracted by my sparkly new ring, I thought ‘Right, we have to find a wedding venue that doesn’t just do risotto!’. And indeed our choice of wedding venue was severely limited by my refusal to serve the guests risotto. The number and range of dishes, the lavishness, that my family, friends and I expected at a special occasion rendered the ubiquitous risotto laughable. I have previously mentioned the venue that offered Welsh rarebit. I was tempted to ask, ‘Are you such basic bitches that you can’t even make risotto?’ but that would have seemed rude. (The supermodel Kate Moss once got very drunk on a budget airline flight and had to be removed from the aircraft. She insulted the pilot by calling her a basic bitch. While I would commend any woman working in a largely male dominated profession, I was quite taken by the insult used.)
Vegetarian food is often regarded as lacking, so if you are viewing it from the point of view of replacing what is supposedly the greatest foodstuff in the entire world, it would make sense to make a dish that includes lots of calories and nice ingredients and some time, skill and effort. And this is where risotto comes in. It should be perfect really. It takes ages to make and contains more butter and cheese than you would care to know.
When I pay £11:99 for risotto, I want to know that it’s worth it. I decide to find out a bit more about risotto. Risotto was introduced to Sicily by the Arabs in the 14th century. It caught on as the Italian climate and soil are well-suited to growing short-grain rice. The first risotto was supposedly invented by a stained glass blower’s apprentice who, as a joke or act of revenge, deliberately added excessive quantities of saffron to a rice dish to be served as a centre piece at a wedding, (Saffron-based revenge – what a middle class thing to do.)
I refer to Felicity Cloake’s article on how to make the perfect risotto. The secret seems to be stock. Whereas you or I use a stock cube or some Bouillon, restaurants spend hours making stock, simmering lots of veg and fresh herbs before reducing it. The grains of rice need to be continually stirred so that they absorb the stock, which is gradually added. It should be made with a special type of wooden spoon called a girariso which has a round hole in the middle and a pointy right ear (please see image below). Apparently it is the passing of the rice grains through the hole that creates the creamy texture. Once the rice has been cooked, you stir in in lots of butter and cheese. You could add posh mushrooms, maybe even some truffles. I feel however that risotto has become a victim of its own success, to the extent that it seems to be the only vegetarian dish in existence.
Emily Roux made a risotto on Saturday Kitchen Live. ‘Now Emily,’ the presenter said, ‘You’re a trained chef from one of the most prestigious families of chefs and restaurateurs, a French family no less. And you’ve come on this show to make one of the most overdone dishes in this country that vegetarians have coming out of their ears? Is that right? Do you realise there’s a woman in south-east London who’s about to shoot herself in dispair?’
Of course he didn’t say that. But she did say that she always has a risotto on the menu at her restaurant as its continually popular. (I was smoking an aubergine over an open flame at the time. I blew a raspberry at the television.)
Of all the places one can eat and be disappointed, I consider pubs to be the worst. I think of the ‘Mediterranean vegetable pasta’ which was a plate of spaghetti in tomato sauce with some strips of raw red pepper on top. I remember once being given a baked potato and beans for Sunday lunch. I think of the ‘pie’ at the pub that catered my grandmother’s funeral – some courgettes and sundried tomatoes with tomato sauce in a ceramic dish with a bit of pastry over the top. Or the expensive place where I had a choice of cauliflower cheese or cucumber sandwiches. It was all I could do to stop myself asking if they were such basic bitches that they couldn’t manage a risotto.
I remember once being infuriated by a programme Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall did in 2012. He positioned himself as some sort of forward thinker and set his staff the enormous challenge of seeing if a vegetarian dish could do as well at the River Cottage restaurant as a non-vegetarian option. They pitted a hunk of meat against some polenta chips with a homemade tomato sauce. I proceeded to roar at the television: ‘POLENTA CHIPS?!? CHIPS IS NOT A MEAL! BRING ME A PROPER MEAL, YOU SPECTACLED BUFFOON!’ You’ll be pleased to know he has since upped his game.
I want to know why I am always given risotto. I speak to a friend’s husband who has spent eighteen years working in hospitality and has managed some posh gastropubs in affluent parts of Home Counties. He once made me dinner and it was lovely. For today’s purposes, we will call him Dan. I hope he will say sensible, thoughtful things and ask him the following questions.
- What do you think of vegetarians?
- Are we awkward or do you view us as mugs, who can be charged the same despite eating cheaper ingredients?
- Are you punishing us?
- Are you trying to gaslight us by pretending there is nothing interesting that can be made?
- Do your brains and all your culinary imagination switch off when the word ‘vegetarian’ is uttered?
- Do you have an annual meeting where you cackle and decree that we must eat the same things, everywhere we go?
- Do you think we are essentially fussy children, only willing to eat a few specified things?
- Why is there such an overlap between the children’s menu and the vegetarian menu, where it masquerades as Italian simplicity.
- Why don’t you get that we would like to eat a variety of food groups in combination?
- Why do I have a more interesting choice of options at Giraffe, All Bar One or Pizza Express than at Galvin La Chapelle?
- On that note, why do expensive restaurants offer so few vegetarian options? And why is it always risotto? Why is there an inverse correlation between how fancy a restaurant is and the number of veggie options?
- Why, as a person with some cookbooks and a kitchen, am I levelling such criticisms at people who cook for a living and probably have professional training?
Dan does indeed say thoughful, sensible things but I am ever so slightly irritated by how diplomatic he is. ‘Maybe it just wasn’t the pub for you and that’s fine.’, he replies when I tell him about one of the disappointing pubs. I want him to say these people are clearly appalingly useless and should be rounded up. Unimpressed by my comment about people’s brains switching off, he asks if I am making assumptions about omnivores. I assert that these are patterns I have observed time and time again throughout my life. Everyone thinks that, he replies. I however am going to have to stand by my comment; I’ve been disappointed too many times. Heck, I’ve even turned my years of disappointment into a blog. (I feel you can pinpoint the moment a chef’s culinary imagination switches off: it’s directly after the carbonara, vongole and bolognese and just before you get to spaghetti napoli, pasta pesto and mushroom risotto.)
He tells me that he views vegetarian food as a challenge and gains satisfaction from creating a dish that tempts omnivores. He compares it to cooking with a metaphorical hand tied behind his back or writing a haiku or sonnet as you have fewer ingredients to use. I’ve never heard this logic before. People normally tell me that vegetarian food is difficult or problematic because it might require some effort or extra ingredients. I think about the spread of Sri Lankan dishes I made the week before. It never occurred to me that there might be anything haiku-like or one handed about them. (The ingredients in sambar masala alone wouldn’t fit in a haiku and I needed both hands to roll the parathas.)
I get what he is saying but we still seem to have come back to this idea that vegetarian food is something separate, something weird, something special. I like to argue that food is food is food and if people identify it as separate, it hasn’t been done properly (or they’re fussy). At the end of the day, I think it’s about some people being very set in their ways to the point that they need to react to the unfamiliar. And frankly, with some of the things I have eaten, I suspect the chef has made them with one hand tied behind his back and they are haiku-like as it’s so limited.)
Dan explains that a restaurant’s main concern is the profit margin. If someone is going to sit there for an hour, a minimum profit needs to be made, regardless of whether they order something made with cheap or expensive ingredients. He tells me that restaurants don’t hate vegetarians, they just love profit. Food should ideally be quick to prepare and customers are apparently unadventurous and rather predictable. (HA!) I’m intrigued by how much customer behaviour data a restaurant would collect in a day, a week, a month. Regardless of what customers say or suggest should go on the menu, they order the same things time and again, risotto included. Interestingly, he says vegetarians weren’t viewed as foodies although he assures me this is an increasingly old fashioned view. I find this odd. Did people think we wanted nut roast more than a pizza with asparagus and artichokes or truffle ravioli?
I ask about the overlap between Italian simplicity, the children’s menu and the boring vegetarian options. The answer again is profit. The penne arrabbiata sells extremely well at a local Italian restaurant which his friend runs in a neighbouring posh Oxfordshire village. I on the other hand, start frothing at the mouth if offered what I consider to be children’s food with chili added and would probably get an aubergine and a tub of ricotta out of my handbag, before demanding pasta a la norma is made for me. ‘I swear, if I have to eat another unimaginative, boring pasta dish and pretend it’s fine, I’ll shove this aubergine…’. I am however told that pasta a la norma probably won’t sell that well.
I’m puzzled by the contradiction I’m faced with. On one hand, the meat eating public are so discerning, so sophisticated that immense skill must be harnessed to coax them to eat vegetarian dishes. Yet the reason I’m lumped with children’s food is because the general public like it and keep ordering it. Which one is it??? Are this public discerning gourmands or fussy children?
I ask about this vegetarian food that omnivores reject, if creating something that tempts them is such an achievement. Are there any vegetarian dishes that he wouldn’t be proud of. Dan complains about vegetables served in a bun that claim to be a veggie burger. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered this, except perhaps for a portobello mushroom in a bun, which as we all know is a case for the reintroduction of the death penalty. I see this vegetables in bun nonsense as an abject failure; I do not see the absence of failure or indeed one’s culinary imagination remaining switched on as something to be proud of, perhaps in the same way as I do not see breathing or speaking as achievements.
He tells me about his veggie burger: a beetroot patty made with wild garlic and walnut pesto, served with posh chips and piccallili. He emphasises that as meat is blended with other ingredients to make a patty, this is what they do with the beetroot, which makes sense, in that this is cooking and ingredients should be cooked. (I’m not going to award any medals for cooking ingredients.) I’m also puzzled by the aforementioned chef who put vegetables in a bun. How do the bog standard food conventions of the bean burger and falafel burger managed to escape someone?
Dan takes the attitude that the vegetables should be treated with the same respect as meat. I would agree, in so far as I just call this cooking. But I struggle to connect this concept with the things that come out of my kitchen. My guests might think me odd, were I to put a feta, spinach and filo pie on the table, stating that I had treated the veg with the same respect as meat.
We discuss the idea that everything you make involves some level of skill and effort. Every part of a meal needs care and attention. If you’ve ever started a discussion in the office about the best way to make roast potatoes (which are vegetables), we’re practically dealing with the effing holy grail, that no amount of work and no length of time is too great for. Dan tells me he makes his roast potatoes with rosemary.
I explain to him how I want to be wowed when I eat out, I want to try something new, learn something new. I want something I couldn’t make at home and probably wouldn’t have thought of. I want to be in the presence of impressive skill and imagination. Why therefore do expensive restaurants have so little for me? I associate high prices and a famous name with the best, most highly trained, expert chefs with incredible culinary imagination with all the ingredients and equipment you could imagine at their fingertips. So why is it just risotto? He tells me he wasn’t very impressed by Galvin La Chapelle either but points out that these restaurants are often more about tradition than innovation. He does however reassure me that he would never put stuffed mushrooms, vegetable lasagne or risotto on any of his menus. I smile. I knew I had an ally.
With regards to being blown away by something new and exciting, he tells me I am probably in the minority in what I look for in a dining experience and repeats that restaurants serve what sells. I mention this to the Doctor. He smiles, ruffles my hair in a patronising way and says that the British public must all be basic bitches then.
You might point out, rightly so, that all this stuff about basic bitches is really quite rude. When will I stop being rude, when will I stop ranting, you ask, having read a number of similarly themed articles. I shall tell you. When I stop feeling like a second class citizen in restaurants and am no longer stuck with risotto or children’s pasta. But I suspect that might be a while away…
The article referenced above is a Guardian article by Felicity Cloake which was published in 2011. It is available at https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2010/may/06/how-to-make-perfect-risotto