I’m in Hong Kong for work, I’m cooking until Sunday at Tosca, a restaurant in the Ritz Carlton, with my crew from Reale and chef Pino Lavarra.
The jet lag won’t let me sleep, so I’m thinking about broth. In the course of just a few days, it came up unexpectedly in two completely different contexts, and when something like that happens it’s never a coincidence.
Right before leaving for China, I was with the Neapolitan gallerist Lia Rumma, a witty and magnetic woman with an incredible intuition: she recalled a chicken broth she’d made for William Kentridge, which brought to mind a broth I’d made at Casadonna for Ettore Spalletti, a great Abruzzese artist, reticent and profound, whom we both love. Three days later I was in Hong Kong and I went to the the Taiwanese chain restaurant Din Tai Fung (one Michelin star in 2010), where I ordered Xiaolongbao, stuffed dumplings in broth. I was struck by the thinness of the steamed pasta wrapping (they explained to me that it tends to be thicker in the north), and the piping hot pork juices that explodes in the mouth. I asked the Cantonese chef at the Ritz to explain how they’re made.
I love broth. It means warmth, comfort, almost like a hug; it is also pain, anguish, fatigue. Broth goes straight to the heart. Broth is elegance.
And it’s also a big part of the Italian culinary tradition, from North to South. In Abruzzo, a beef and chicken broth with vegetables, fried bread and herbs is served on holidays. I published the recipe in Semplicità Reale (Giunti, 2009), along with a broth of goat, tarragon and raspberry. For the ‘Essenza’ tasting menu at Reale, I serve Light Broth of Veal and Cinnamon with Tongue Ravioli, while the ‘Ideale’ menu features Spiced Mushroom Infusion, a new dish that gives an initial impression of being glazed. I’ve always had Absolute of Onion, Parmigiano and Toasted Saffron on my menu, and at Spazio we’re about to include Mantis Prawn and Tarragon Broth with Cardoon Filled Cappelletti. There’s always been a broth on my menus, since I started cooking.
In the beginning I made classic broths, applying the principles we all know: start with cold water, add a vegetable and then an animal component to extract flavors and nuances, transferring them to the liquid; low flame and slow cooking until it’s barely boiling; clarify with egg white and filter out the impurities, mindful of the risk of weakening the flavor. As my own taste gradually evolved and I searched for purity, I changed my approach and started my work on cooked vegetable extractions (using a salt crust, in the case of onions), which is to say the concept of the ‘absolute’. I couldn’t call it ‘broth’ anymore, because it didn’t start with water, even though by eliminating the pulp and saving only the juice I obtained a liquid with the same density as a broth. I then concentrated these absolutes and used them as a ‘glaze’, as in my artichoke recipe – all without ever adding fats or mirepoix, striving for lightness without sacrificing flavor.
For my Veal and Cinnamon I revisited the ‘classic’ broth and set about studying, which led to a revelation: starting with cold water to extract the maximum amount of juices is a waste of time. It is only after 70°C that the proteins completely release the liquids, and it’s not so crucial to get there gradually. It’s not necessary to ‘coddle’ the meat to make a broth. After numerous trials I found my ideal temperature: 80°C. This allows me to obtain a broth that absorbs maximum flavor from the meat without ever reaching the boiling point. And by avoiding boiling, I preserve the clarity of the liquid. Maximum flavor, maximum clarity, and maximum lightness (because cloudiness is caused by the release of fats into the liquid). The broth thus obtained is transparent and flavor-intensive, and it ‘tolerates’ the tongue-filled ravioli in a sort of evenly matched contest. It annoys me when a customer eats the pasta and leaves the broth, given the amount of work invested in perfecting it!
The very latest to appear was the Infusion of Sage, which we began serving when Reale opened. It’s bitter (too much so for some customers), with a balsamic edge; you definitely taste the full power of the sage. I serve it in a classic early 20th-century cup with a gold rim, because I like the contrast between such a bourgeois object and a liquid that’s almost ‘wild’, like nature, whose sharp edges shouldn’t be softened; not everyone has to like it.
So, this is where I’ve come thus far. What is broth? Warmth and comfort, as I said, but it’s also purity and power, almost like a magnifying glass on the dish of which it is part. In a few weeks I’ll be in New York: folks are telling me that Marco Canora (a chef from Lucca, at the Hearth restaurant) makes a ‘walking’ broth and I’m curious to try it.
One last observation: in Italy, when talking about “ristorazione di mezzo” (halfway between haute cuisine and home cooking), it would be nice think about the trattoria of the future. We still don’t do it enough (myself included), but we should.
It will definitely have an excellent broth on the menu. But this is for another episode.
Here it’s 3 in the morning, and I’m finally heading off to sleep.