Food in Early One Morning

A picture of a plate of Italian risotto, similar to one featured in the novel Early One Morning by the author Virginia Baily

Food was always an important part of the Early One Morning story, not least because my love of Italy is the fundamental inspiration for the novel and you can’t talk about Italy without mentioning food.

I first went to Italy aged sixteen and I fell in love with it – the colours and light, the language, the buildings, the people, the version of me I found there and, of course, the food.  (You can read about my longstanding romance with Rome on Isabel Costello’s literary sofa blog).

A particular fusion aroma whose components include olive oil, garlic and Lavazza coffee still has the power to transport me, hurtling me through space and time, back to then, to my teenage self about to learn to twirl spaghetti round my fork.

My heroine Chiara Ravello’s relationship with food is integral to how she relates to the world. She is small and slightly built, but is both a hearty eater – even finishing off the stuff her more picky sister rejects – and a provider of tasty meals.

In times of plenty she loves to wander through the market choosing what is ripe and in season but she is also adept at making do in times of penury. The very first meal she prepares in the book is one composed of leftovers and shriveled herbs. She ingeniously creates dishes to feed a houseful during the occupation of Rome when food, not money, was the most important currency.

Recipe 1: Nonna’s Risotto

This risotto recipe is a meal Chiara prepares for her young British visitor, Maria for whom it constitutes part of the ongoing revelation that is Rome and  all things Italian.

‘The Signora tipped in some white wine from the previous night’s leftover bottle and gave the pan a stir. 

‘I make you green vegetable risotto.
Like Nonna used to make,’ she said. 

Maria’s own gran made risotto too. It came in a cardboard packet with a picture on the front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was nothing like the small bowl of gooey rice with broad beans and peas that the signora presented her with. They sprinkled over the top a heavenly and pungent cheese.’

Ingredients

2 stalks of celery – threads removed and finely diced
1 white onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
About 500 grams of fresh (or frozen) broad beans
400 grams of podded peas,
extra virgin olive oil
Vegetable stock
50g butter (optional)
1 large glass of dry white wine
300g risotto rice
A handful each of chopped mint and oregano
250g Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

Heat 1 litre of stock in a large pan.

In a separate wide pan, make a soffrito.  Heat a couple of glugs of olive oil, add the onion, garlic and celery and cook very gently for 10 to 15 minutes or so until softened but not browned.  The vegetables should be on the verge of melting.

While the soffrito is cooking, pod the peas and broad beans if using fresh (Nonna always did).  If the broad beans are a bit big and old and leathery (or even if they aren’t, but you’re making the effort) pop them out of their inner skins. This is most easily done by dropping them into boiling water for half a minute, draining them and cooling them under running cold water and then squeezing them out one by one – it is time consuming but, as a reward, what emerges is the beautiful little juicy bean at their centre, coloured brightest green. Take half the broad beans and bash them up with olive oil and half the mint in a pestle and mortar until they are a mush.

Add the rice to the soffrito pan. Turn up the heat and stir with a wooden spoon until the rice begins to look translucent. Tip in the wine and stir some more until the liquid is absorbed.

Stir in the beany paste and a teaspoon of salt.

Reduce the heat and start to add the hot stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring the mixture with the back of the wooden spoon, encouraging the starch out of the rice, making sure the liquid is absorbed before adding the next ladleful.

When the rice is cooked, after about 15 minutes - it should be soft with a slight bite in the middle - throw the broad beans and peas into the mixture and stir, letting them heat through.

Turn off the heat, add the butter, half the parmesan, the rest of the mint, the oregano and a good grinding of black pepper. Stir once more. Put the lid on the pan and leave for 3 minutes. 

Serve with the rest of the grated parmesan to sprinkle.