One of the perks of the job is the trips, and this one was extra special because it was a competition prize for this year’s Tilda Chef of the Year winner, Lee Warren, who works for Compass. Another ex-winner and now judge of the competition, Danny Leung of Lexington Catering, joined us along with new Tilda Head of Foodservice, Craig Dillon and BigH journalist, Sophie Witts.
Our trip to Italy was timed to coincide with the Arborio rice harvest and with winter showing sure signs of its return in the UK, we were all up bright and early for a 7am Monday morning meet at Gatwick. The sun was beating down in Milan when we landed and jumped into a waiting taxi, which whisked us off for lunch at Ristorante Convivium (www.conviviumnovara.it) in Novara on the outskirts of Milan. Here, the chef, Giampiero Cravero, who had kept his restaurant open especially for us (after a 90 minute delay on Gatwick’s runway), made a fuss of us presenting us with a starter, two different risottos and a to-die-for chocolate taster dessert with five different mouthfuls of pleasure (see pic attached).
From the restaurant to the rice mill (http://www.risoceriotti.com/) – which is responsible for producing Tilda’s prized Arborio rice – where we met our host Carla Ceriotti. The rice mill has been owned by the Ceriotti family for four generations and what Carla doesn’t know about risotto rice, quite frankly is not worth knowing. She spoke with passion and love about what they do at Riseria Ceriotti. Rice farming in Italy is a different beast, farms are much smaller than in other countries and Carla deals with over 5,000 different farmers buying their harvest to produce the finest risotto rice at the Ceriotti mill.
This part of our visit complete we headed into the postcard perfect town of Novara which boasts more history than you’d think possible for a town of its size (approx. 100k inhabitants). Our guide walked us around the key historical buildings which included two cathedrals, an opera house, a castle, which is currently being restored and a special paving stone which signifies the middle of the town when the Romans founded the city. You couldn’t help but wander around with your mouth open and eyes agaze at the ancient walls and buildings at every turn, even the new buildings have been built to sit amongst the old without looking out of place.
It had been a long day and after enjoying some more traditional Italian food and wine, plus of course some Grappa we found our way to bed to rest and recuperate for day two…
We set off after breakfast to pay a visit to a friend of Riseria Ceriotti, one of the famers harvesting their crop. The farmer proudly showed off his acres of paddy fields as we sat on bales of hay on a trailer pulled by a tractor, he grew a dozen different rice varieties from the kind that ‘snap’, ‘crackle’ and ‘pop’ when you add milk to the finest risotto rices served up across the globe. This was the highlight of the trip for me – the sun was shining and the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful (for those that know me, will know that I’m a proper city girl who doesn’t do scenery, so this really is praise indeed!).
We were driven to Mortara (thankfully not in a tractor) which is home to the Italian Official Research Centre for Rice and were allowed to look around the laboratories and get a glimpse into the in-depth work, which is done behind the scenes to preserve the quality and provenance of the rice which has been growing in the Po Valley for centuries.
Our last stop before the airport was a restaurant in Mortara which was a hive of activity; locals coming and going, popping in for a coffee and a game of cards, business lunches and old friends catching up. We ate, a lot…first there were breadsticks, then bread and the traditional anti-pasta, which in this case was a selection of about seven different meats, then the main (which was actually, apparently a starter, but we couldn’t go another course…because we obviously wanted dessert!), where we all opted for pasta, which didn’t disappoint – perfectly cooked, seasoned and dressed with the lightest, tastiest, finest tomato sauce ever tasted. We didn’t have room for dessert, but we all forced down a slice of something delicious anyway…I went for a chocolate Nutella pastry tart – I would not be beaten.
Our trip to the airport was a quiet one, it took about 90 seconds before we had all drifted into a food coma, only abruptly awakened when it was time to check-in and say grazie e arrivederci.
Tilda is renowned for quality and consistency and seeing first-hand the operation in Italy, it’s easy to see why Tilda has partnered with Carla and the Riseria Ceriotti team.