Good Food, Not Just Any Food: Andrea Camilleri’s ‘Inspector Montalbano’s Arancini’ (1999)

Not long ago, I was informed by a student in an essay that the word ‘arancini’ had made its way into Oxford Dictionaries in 2014. This made me smile, of course, because it means Italian can still influence other languages –albeit mainly through food items. Then again, I find it hard to believe that such a specific Italian word for one type of Sicilian street food could be added to a dictionary of the English language: yet, I remember seeing the local Zizzi’s (a most popular “Italian” restaurant chain in the UK) advertise their new arancini (which, I suspect, I am not going to try soon, as I have made mine own!), and I can imagine they can be occasionally spotted here and there in some Italian restaurants in the UK, although I have not seen them frequently in their menus. At the same time, how could “arancini” (little oranges) be otherwise translated in English? Their name is reminiscent of warm, sun-ripened Sicilian oranges, whilst being in the shape of this fruit, but occasionally of pears too, and their connotation makes most Italians’ mouths water immediately with the crispiness of their deep-fried, breadcrumb coating, the juiciness of their savoury filling (which, indeed, reminds one of blood oranges), and the comforting texture of risotto.

Apparently of legendary Arab and Norman origins, like most original Sicilian food otherwise (remember Joyce’s blancmange/biancomangiare?), arancini are now the most wanted Sicilian street food across Italy. Andrea Camilleri viscerally connects his genial literary creation, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, with food, and most specifically with arancini. Those of you who are familiar with his novels and collections of short stories, or maybe have watched the series as it was broadcasted on RAI and BBC, will be familiar with Montalbano’s obsession with food. Actually, his obsession with good food. Montalbano is not one to eat voraciously, or even frequently: Montalbano takes his time eating, and most importantly he is one of those that he would probably not eat at all if he were to eat bad food. This is importantly also symbolical of his own relationship with Livia, his long-term, long-distance girlfriend. Livia is from Northern Italy (she lives in Genoa, and often visits Montalbano at weekends where she is repeatedly neglected because of the Inspector’s job duties) and is “obviously” depicted as a bad cook, and is praised in the rare occasions when she manages to prepare something vaguely acceptable for Montalbano. In order to prevent her from cooking, Montalbano often suggests taking her out for dinner to his favourite restaurant (Calogero’s) in Vigata, the imaginary Sicilian town where all of his stories are set: their relationship always appears of the oscillating kind, partly and perhaps also because Montalbano ultimately fails to let Livia cook him food, and so feed him. While he is occasionally depicted as doing it for her, she is negated this possibility of making her love for Montalbano explicit by way of her culinary preparations. His taste and high ideals of food and cooking do not match with hers: while Camilleri here obviously hints at the never-ending suspicions of Southern Italians towards Northern Italian cuisine, he is also really trying to portray the relationship between Montalbano and his loved one as unstable and complex for their different personalities, their living far apart, but also because of their opposite conceptions of food. Montalbano, while disregarding Livia’s cooking skills, always praises his maid Adelina’s Sicilian skills as a cook.

And so, it is not by chance that in the short story ‘Gli arancini di Montalbano’ (‘Montalbano’s Arancinis’) Camilleri has Montalbano argue with Livia, reason why they will not spend New Year’s Eve together, and has him opt for a night with arancini instead, carefully prepared by his maid. But this won’t prove to be an easy task: Adelina’s criminal son will get in the way, and the circumstances will make him dread the idea that he might not taste those gorgeous savoury “oranges” on New Year’s Eve: but he is, after all, a most successful inspector…

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Arancini

Adelina’s Recipe (adapted and revised by Nico)

Ingredients

(Since Adelina’s recipe in Camilleri’s short story does not have an indication of measures etc. I have adapted those myself.)

  • 250gr beef mince (Camilleri’s Adelina actually says you should use a mixture of pork and veal mince, but I have used beef mince as that is easier to purchase in the UK, and also because the idea is that one should make a kind of Bolognese sauce, and I normally use beef mince for that)
  • 250ml tomato passata
  • ½ small onion
  • herbs (parsley, basil)
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 300gr Arborio rice
  • saffron (now, be very careful: Adelina does not use saffron – saffron risotto being typically Northern Italian, and not Southern Italian, but, to be entirely honest with you, I prefer the inside of my arancini to be yellow and lightly saffron flavoured)
  • 1 egg
  • ½ small tin of petit pois
  • béchamel sauce/cheese (now, I haven’t added either béchamel sauce or mozzarella because in my head typical beef arancini don’t contain either things, but Adelina says she adds a little béchamel. I have also seen cheese in beef arancini occasionally; more often, though, in cheese-and-ham arancini, which is another typically Sicilian variety)
  • flour and breadcrumbs for coating
  • sunflower/vegetable oil for deep-frying

Directions

First of all, as Camilleri says, good arancini are made very slowly. His Adelina apparently takes two whole days to make them. My recent attempt at making these went slightly wrong because I did not follow two major rules for successful arancini-making: 1- be patient, and 2- make risotto (I boiled rice instead, as I was in a hurry…). Whilst patience is a rather difficult virtue at times, making risotto is an inescapable step to make good arancini. And in fact, making risotto takes roughly the same amount of time as boiling rice (20 minutes), so I am not sure why I went for this rice preparation which reminded me very much of sushi making- maybe, in a moment of distraction, I thought I was going to make saffron-infused sushi rice balls (which I could try and make some other time, and maybe include them in some novel, or poem). But now, let’s start explaining how to make proper (hopefully Montalbano-approved) arancini!

  1. Make the sauce first, I would recommend making this the day/night before, so that it is already ready when you are making arancini.
  2. To make the sauce, follow Nico’s recipe for Italian tomato sauce (as in my earlier blogpost on E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread), only quickly fry beef mince after onions have got golden brown, and before putting in the tomato passata. Cook slowly for at least half an hour. Add petit pois at the end and cook for another 10 minutes or so.
  3. Leave the sauce to rest (it will taste even better the day after, when you will need it to make arancini), and get started on making risotto now.
  4. Chop half of a small onion and fry it with some olive oil and a clove of garlic. When the onion is golden brown, remove garlic clove and add rice, with a splash of white wine, and add boiling stock to the rice. Add hot water when needed, continue stirring the risotto so that it won’t stick to the pan, and rice will be cooked in about 20 minutes. As I mentioned before, I would add saffron (if you do, then after adding hot water), but it is not necessary.
  5. Leave the rice to cool.
  6. When the rice has got cold, add an egg so that the rice mixture will stick together more easily.
  7. Now the fun part begins – if you ever liked playing with PlayDo as a child, this is for you! Make balls (as big as oranges) with your risotto, and add a big spoonful of sauce in the middle of the rice ball. Make sure the sauce stays inside and is fully covered with rice.
  8. Heat the sunflower oil in a deep saucepan and prepare a mixture of flour and breadcrumbs on a plate. The oil will be hot enough and ready when you throw a breadcrumb in the oil, and it immediately starts frying. This is really important – if your oil is not hot enough, your arancini will start to crumble and your breadcrumbs will go everywhere in the pan!
  9. Roll your rice balls in the flour and breadcrumbs, and place them in the oil in the frying pan. After a couple of minutes turn them so that both sides become golden.
  10. When your arancini are of a nice golden brown colour on the whole of their surface, take them out of the pan (be careful not burning yourself as the oil will be very hot!) and place them on a plate with kitchen paper (to absorb the oil).
  11. To be served hot!
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Nico’s ‘slightly’ less-than-perfect arancini!

 

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