Dienstag, 8. September 2015

"Quanto risotto!" - Giuseppe Verdi's original recipe and the purchased audience

Risotto after Giuseppe Verdi's recipe
Risotto, of course, stands everywhere in the world for a Milanese rice dish.  What is virtually unknown today is that in the 19th century, 'risotto' also made it into the casual vocabulary of the musical  society in Milan - with a completely different meaning. The correspondent for the English music monthly The Harmonicon reported in its January 1824 issue from Milan:
"A new Opera semi-seria was produced here from the pen of Mercadante, entitled Adele ed Emerico. The success appeared to be complete, if we might judge from the applauses of his friends, and the risotti who summoned the maestro to make his appearance three times during the piece. But good judges took this furore for a fiascone, and so it really proved, for on the two following evenings, the composer obtained this honour but once, and the music was performed to empty benches."
So what or who are the risotti? The correspondent hastened to explain it to his English readers in a footnote:
"The literal meaning of risotto in Italian is a dish of prepared rice, which is a great favorite with the Milanese. Now if a composer wishes to ensure his piece a certain portion of that applause, which he is perhaps doubtful whether its own merits will obtain, he is obliged, in addition to a free admission, to treat certain people with a risotto, which is the equivalent to a good glass of wine with us. Hence the phrase quanto risotto! which implies that a composer or singer has purchased the applause of some particular occasion."

The Harmonicon - January 1824
Another source shows that the term 'risotto' was used in Milan with that meaning for quite some time. In The Gazzetta Musicale di Milano of October 30, 1870, its correspondent reported on the performance of the opera Camille by Ferdinand Paër (1771-1839): "One number was repeated, there or four were applauded sincerely, five or six were upheld by the risotto (as you say in Milan); the rest went through cornered"  („Un pezzo fu replicato, tre o quattro applauditi sinceramente, cinque o sei sostenuti dal risotto (come dite voi a Milano); gli altri passarono fra l'uscio e il muro“).

We don't know whether Giuseppe Verdi, whose earliest operas were performed in Milan for the first time, knew that particular meaning of 'risotto', though it is likely he did. But certainly the risotto as a rice dish was indispensable for him: As is well known, the maestro appreciated all things beautiful in life, in particular the cuisine of his homeland, and he was also a passionate cook himself. Good food requires good produce, as Giuseppe Verdi and his wife Giuseppina Strepponi were well aware of: When preparing for Verdi's first trip to St. Petersburg in November 1861 (for the planned premiere of La forza del destino), Giuseppina Strepponi wrote to Corticelli, the secretary of the actress Adelaide Ristori, who at that time had an engagement in the Russian capital: "We will need perfect tagliatelle and maccheroni, to keep Verdi in good spirits in that cold and with all these furs (...) If the Ristori thinks she can impress Verdi with her tagliatelle, he will outshine her with his risotto which he knows to prepare divinely." Apart from rice, maccheroni, cheese and sausages, she passes along Verdi's beverage order for their planned stay of three months: 100 small bottles of Bordeaux to go with the meals, 20 bottles of fine Bordeaux and 20 bottles of champagne. Cheers.

Now, how did Verdi prepare his divine risotto? You can find a number of recipes for a risotto à la Verdi, the most famous one probably being by Henri-Paul Pelaprat (1869-1952), the French chef and author of the seminal L'Art Culinaire Moderne, who refined the classical risotto with cream, tomatoes and asparagus. No doubt a tasty dish, but far from the original Verdi risotto. Luckily enough, the original recipe has been documented for posterity. In a letter to Camille Le Locle of the Paris Opera, who had asked for it, Giuseppina Strepponi writes on behalf of Verdi:
"In a pan put two ounces of fresh butter; two ounces of beef or veal bone marrow, with some finely chopped onions. When these have roasted a bit, add sixteen ounces of Piemontese rice. Let it go while stirring frequently with a wooden spoon on high fire, until the rice is roasted and golden brown. Take boiling stock, from good meat, and add two to three ladles thereof to the rice. When the heat dries it little by little, add more stock until the rice is perfectly cooked. But don't forget to add half a glass of still sweet wine at half the cooking time (i.e. about 15 minutes after having added the rice). Then also add, one after the other, three handfuls of grated Parmesan cheese. When the rice is almost done, dissolve a pinch of saffron in a spoon of stock, add it into the pan, take the pan off the heat and pour the rice into a tureen. If you have truffles at hand, chop them finely and add them to the risotto like cheese, if not, just add cheese. Cover and serve instantly." (see Corrado Mingardi, La cucina di Verdi, Milan 2013, p. 25).

Even if today one hardly ever hears "quanto risotto!" anymore in Milan's opera house, thanks to Giuseppina Strepponi opera lovers can enjoy a divine and thus truly Verdian risotto - or maybe the variety of the dish proposed by Ambrogio Maestri, the great Falstaff of our days:

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