Italy and Spain have many things in common. First of all the language: many visitors to Italy say “Gracias” instead of “Grazie” as the sound of the two word is very similar and so it is with many different words of both vocabularies. Grammar rules are basically the same since both languages derive directly from Latin. Both Countries have an immense cultural, historical and artistic Heritage, just to mention a couple of highlights think about the Alhambra in Granada and the Colosseum in Rome. Both people of Italy and Spain have a special welcoming attitude that makes every visitor comfortable; they both use the so called “body language” and most of all they do both consider each other “cousins”.
As far as food is concerned, there are several similarities in the food tradition of Italy and Spain: we both use olive oil rather than butter, we both make large use of tomato sauce, onions and the aromatic herbs of the mediterranean basin. Some local products are also very smiliar such as the Spanish Jamon (Serrano and Iberico) and the Italian Prosciutto Crudo (Parma and San Daniele being the most popular, although an immense variety is available).
One of the recipes that could make you feel you are in any of these two country is Paella. If you were asked to eat blind folded, you may not be able to understand if you are eating Paella or Risotto although there are some important differerences between the two recipes. Before going in depth into differences and commonalities just remember that despite you might have had very good Paellas during your stay in Spain, the original recipes comes from the area of Valencia and it has pretty often being adjusted to the taste of the visitors who may not be happy with specific foods as well as the that of the youngsters whose culinary abilities have been compromised by the fast food industry and cannot distinguish junk food from healthy one anymore.
1 – The Rice
Paella is made with a rice called “Bomba” which is cultivated pretty much within the context of the natural park of Albufera, few miles south of valencia. As you can see from the picture below, the grains of the Bomba rice have a round shape and it is considered the best for Paella, given it’s very low starch content and it’s ability to absorb the liquid in way to double it’s size while cooking. Risotto, instead, is made with both Carnaroli or Arborio rice, which is cultivated pretty much in the north West of Italy, in the so called rice fields of Vercelli, within the context of the Piedmont Region. Carnaroli, whose grains are a bit longer, is also called the King of Rice due to it’s exceptional organoleptic characteristics such as a well balanced quantity of starch that makes it perfect for recipes that require the grains to stick together, such as risotto.
2 – The Broth
Both Paella and Risotto require the preparation of a broth in advance (this may not be correct for every recipe as some variations do not require any broth but other sort of liquid preparation such as, for example, the fish stock or wine). The broth varies a lot depending on the kind of Risotto or Paella you want to make. In many cases it is a simple vegetable broth made with onions, carrots, potatoes and celery with a limited quantity of aromatic herbs as you don’t want the taste of the spices to be predominant. In other cases the broth can be a meat broth (chicken, beef, veal, rabbit). Such broth must be prepared in advance, even the day before making paella or risotto.
3 – The colourants
Both Paella and Risotto can make use of Saffron which is the most expensive spice in the world, although small quantities do the job of enhancing the taste and provide a pleasant yellowish colour to the rice. However in Italy, safron is used mostly for the so called “Risotto alla Milanese” which is actually a full meal made with sliced veal shanks whose leftovers are lightly fried the next day to provide a crispy taste. As far as paella is concerned, beside saffron, other natural edible colourants are used to provide that typical orange coulour that differeciates it from risotto and is also the reason why at the food markets of Valencia or Barcelona you always find shops that look like middle east spice kiosks but who actually sell natural colourants.
4 – The Pot
Paella is made with a special pot that we might call “Paellera”. It is a low, large and very thin metal pot with two handles. It’s size depends on the number of people you want to serve thus it’s width changes if you are making paella for 2, for 4, for 6 and so on. Being usually pretty large (mine is for 4) the fires should have a double or triple circles, but in our house we content ourselves with our regular fires. The paellera is very thin because the should allow the rice to mildly burn at the bottom. On the contrary risotto is made with a medium tall pot which can be in metal or even in terracotta. In this case the bottom of the pot should be pretty thick to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom (which is pretty much a crime for risotto).
5 – the cooking technique
The cooking tecnique is both a similarity and a big difference between Paella and Risotto. When you make Paella, after adding the rice to the basic preparation, you have to pour all the necessary broth to cook the rice, at the same time and never have to stir. It usually takes 15 up to 20 minutes and. You can feel the rice is cooked when all the liquid has been absorebed and the rice starts to stick to the bottom of the pot. Paella is cooked at a medium fire.
To make risotto you have to do pretty much the same, however the broth is added 1 ladleful at a time: before adding more broth you have to wait until the previous ladleful has been fully absorbed and you must stir sometimes to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The final result in fact depends on how soft you want your risotto at the end: if you like it “all’onda” – by adding a bit more broth than necessary (seriously, just a bit) or you like it very dense, thus you have to constantly check the cooking and turn the fire off once the broth is fully absordeb, cover the port from 2 – 3 minutes and then serve. Risotto is cooked at a low fire.
6 – The final touch
Paella is served very hot, immediately upon completion of the cooking: the pot is placed at the centre of the table and everyone serve him/herself from it. As a general rule instead, Risotto requires a final treatment, which is called “Mantecatura”: when the cooking is complete and all the broth is absorbed, fire must be turned off, then you must add a generous handful of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, together with some butter (optional). Stir well, cover the pot with it’s own lid and wait for a 2 – 3 minutes. For fish based risotto the mantecatura is not necessary as fish doesn’t match well with Parmigiano cheese.
Both Paella and Risotto can be done with an immense variety of ingredients such as meat, vegetables and fish (risotto may offer some more opportunities) and they both are delicious. As a matter of fact they both are Flagship recipes of the Spanish and the Italian culinary arts and, among others, they do both represent a good reason to visit both Countries. I’ll soon post my personal version of the Spanish Paella. Keep in Touch.