Elizabeth David wrote about a visit to Italy when she came across an unusual vegetable sold in the markets there. The woman selling it told her that it was called bruscandoli, which is the Venetian dialect word for wild hop shots, known as luppoli in standard Italian. Elizabeth David is a bit of a guru of mine and lot of our mealtimes at home start with the words “Elizabeth David wrote…” So if Mrs David said that the Hop Shoot Risotto she ate in her hotel in Venice that night was the best she had ever eaten, well, I had to try it.
Frustratingly, while she gives the recipe for two varieties of hop-top soup (which is fun to say, if rather laborious to cook), she says nothing about how to prepare this legendary risotto. She does however quote an unnamed Belgian chef who says they should definitely be under- rather than overcooked.
Should not be a problem, I thought, and set off in hunt of some wild hop shoots. Last autumn I gathered some very pretty wild hops along a river bank, so it should only be as difficult as locating the spot again, finding a gap between the railings, slithering down the slope, identifying the shoots, clipping them at the base as Mrs David instructed, and flinging them in the risotto at the end of cooking. Oh, and keeping half an eye on my baby while attempting such riverside acrobatics.
I set off on a glorious late April day along the river. Elizabeth David said that in Italy the season ended on the first week of May, but would obviously be longer the further North you were. As you can see, it was very pretty and I found all sorts of edibles. There were apple, cherry, walnut and elder trees growing in profusion, right in the middle of the city. The dandelions were fresh and luscious, and if I had brought my gloves, I would have gathered enough nettles to try out Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall’s nettle soup recipe. No hop shoots though, which was probably as well, because the bank was a lot steeper than I remember it being, and I had a pram with me.
I had pretty much given up the idea of my hop shoots, until the next day when I went to the Farmer’s market and saw this:
I imagined Elizabeth David and her wise old Venetian lady. My wild-hop seller was Austrian and had hot pink hair, but it is 2016. Mrs David couldn’t find hers in the wild either, and had to rely on older knowledge. I later found out that it had been looking in the wrong place entirely. The OH insists they were much further along the river, and he is usually, annoyingly, right. Next time, I will go in autumn, find the easy-to-identify fully-grown hop vines, mark it on a map and go back in the spring to the right place
They were delicious though. I followed the Belgian’s advice and flashed them in butter and added them to the risotto at the very end of cooking. They were the perfect, slightly bitter counterbalance to the creamy Arborio rice, and were excellent as a side for salmon. I imagine most people can already manage a risotto, but here is my recipe anyway. I recently read a German recipe that said to add cream and cheddar cheese, so it just shows you can never presume :
Serves two greedy people with leftovers
Wild hop risotto:
A bunch of wild hop shoots. Keep only the green bendy bits, chuck any bits which snap rather than bend easily.
2 cups Arborio rice
1 clove Garlic
0.5 litres / 1 pint of stock, kept simmering on the stove
1 glass of dry white wine
50g / 2oz Butter plus more for the hop shoots
50g / 2oz Parmesan
A splash of olive oil
Heat the olive oil and butter in the pan until the butter is melted, then add the onions and cook gently until soft. Add the garlic and cook for a moment longer.
Add the rice and stir it in the pan until it is well coated with the butter and shiny. Pour in the glass of white wine and let it bubble up.
Add the stock a ladleful at a time, allowing each ladle to be absorbed before adding the next one. It is important that the stock is hot or you will slow down the cooking time too much. If you use it all up, use hot water boiled up in the kettle instead. The stock gets quite concentrated, and more will make it too salty. Stir the risotto often, and after about twenty minutes, start tasting the risotto for doneness. It will take between half an hour and forty minutes, depending on how you like your rice.
When the rice is done, take it off the heat, put on another pan. Melt the reserved butter. Cook the wild hops fast for one minute, max.
Add the hops to the risotto with the parmesan. Serve on warm plates with more parmesan on the side, if anyone wants it.