The Risotto Gulag

As we marched in one by one into the vast rectangular courtyard of the Antica Tenuta Colombara rice growing estate, a mirage of a sign bearing the inscription “arbeit macht frei” flew over my head, an understandable hallucination in the eighty degree ten a.m. heat. The main building on the estate, with its vastness, in the middle of a rice field, and the country chic farm implements and tractors dotting the front yard, reeked of gulag. We were not visiting the estate to lift heavy equipment and harvest rice, but the oppressive layout and searing heat and humidity made me fear the worst. A fun and luxurious visit seemed out of reach.The day began with an interminable, Fidel Castro-style chat by Piero Rondalino, the proprietor of the estate, on the history of rice farming. We sat at a horseshoe shaped table in a musty, large and airless attic, with vaulted wood beamed ceilings and sparrows flying around, for an added Hitchcock effect. Even the most stalwart students had their mettle tested by the prattle of the Dear Rice Leader, nodding off and looking forward to a late afternoon snooze in the farm house at the front of the property. Before we reached the promised land of our spartan cots, young Rinaldo took us on a jaunt around his playground -- the rice paddy. Previous to this visit, the only rice paddies I’d seen were in Life Magazine photos from the Vietnam War and Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”. The real life rice paddy on the estate isn’t as evocative and romantic as the celluloid version – no peasants squatting here and there in concave hats. Yet despite the inauspicious beginning to the visit, the faint smell of butter, stock and white wine wafted across the courtyard and found its way somehow into the airless attic. A tasting of risotto and a well-deserved lunch break beckoned.Our first lunch was not quite sustenance, just a tasting meant to examine differences between four grades of rice: par-boiled, basmati, Arborio, and Carnaroli. Initially, I was impressed with Piero’s teaching ability, instructing us how to do a visual exam to determine variance in rice grades, and then blind tests. The first blind test consisted of a small ball of par-boiled commercial rice, better quality than Uncle Ben’s but less delicious and more brittle than the average supermarket basmati. A ball of Acquerello carnaroli rice, the brand sold by Tenuta Colombara, was placed next to the par-boiled. The par boiled was not seasoned at all, and was simply a filling starch, and no distinguishable organoleptic features. The carnaroli was prepared as a simple white wine, stock and butter risotto, and was notable for its nuttiness, grain separation, and ability to subtly absorb liquid. This raises the question of fair play during a tasting visit to a producer. It is a given that Rondolino thinks Acquerello is superior to all the other rice types present at the tasting, but why would he place the carnaroli, trumpeted as superior in its ability to absorb flavor, next to a mediocre commercial par-boiled, and then serve the latter basically unseasoned? A fairer fight would have been to place Acquerello next to a competitor’s carnaroli or perhaps a competitor’s vialone nano rice, a type of rotund, pearl like rice from the Veneto that is higher in starch content and absorbs more water per grain than carnaroli, while still maintaining flavor. This debate swirled in my head as I indifferently tasted an Arborio risotto next to a boiled and unseasoned commercial basmati, and perhaps due in part to its tasty preparation, the Arborio was the winner. Overall, I would agree that if prepared without seasoning, the Acquerello is superior but the way the tasting was conducted was biased and pre-determined at least my own judgment.

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