One night in early January, I started talking to a Sicilian Donkey on twitter, we were chatting about limoncello initially, but talk soon turned to arancini, a Sicilian street snack, filled with all manner of delicious ingredients. I learned more about arancini when Chef Umberto Caltabiano wrote a piece for the blog about his golden balls of delight. Arancini are to the Italians what the Cornish Pasty is to the Cornish, put simply arancini delicious morsels of deep-fried risotto balls with a centre filling oozing with flavour. Although the fillings are regional, traditionally there are two main varieties ragu or cheese.
Within his piece, Chef Umberto mentioned that he had thrown down the gauntlet to Carluccio’s on twitter and that the game was on to find the #bestballs in the inaugral arancini challenge. Shortly after, I was generously asked if I would be on the judging panel and I was honoured to accept. So the banter began between Chef Umberto Caltabiano and Chef Luciano Natasi. Who had been up all night crafting their menu the longest? And ‘arguing’ about who had the best balls. When the menus were tweeted to the judges the night before it was an impossible task deciding which on paper was going to be the winner. I loved aspects of both menus, but the proof they say is in the eating and so I headed north of the river to Carluccio’s in upper street and was greeted with a glass of Prosecco by lovely Camilla Johnson, PR and Marketing Manager at Carluccio’s. I then met my fellow judges Gemma Gannon writer of Boozy Rouge and Victoria Cameron writer of A Spoonful of Sugar. We were all introduced to the wonderful Hugh Johnson who photographed proceedings beautifully along with fellow photographer David Gatenby who stepped up to the plate, literally, to stand in for our fourth judge who was feeling under par.
The wait was over and the first course arrived. The first course was the vegetable course and Menu A presented ‘Alla Norma’ Aubergine Tomato Sauce with Ricotta Salata and Menu B presented Artichoke and Mushroom with Taleggio. I tried menu A first and it was absolutely beautiful, I adore ‘ Alla Norma’ and the flavours were plentiful in every bite. The arancini on Menu A were, I was told traditional in size and so larger than the presentation which arrived moments later from Menu B. The presentation on Menu B was fantastic, a twist on tradition. The arancini was presented as a toadstool you might find in a forest. The flavour of the mushroom and taleggio together with the artichoke purée were sublime. I have to say that it was very difficult to decide which of my favourite flavours to choose.
Winner: Menu B – The artichoke purée, mushroom garnish and the crispness of the arancini won it for me.
The next course was the fish course and from Menu A, Creamy Smoked Salmon, Lemon Zest and Dill and from Menu B Fusion Thai Prawns. Once again I started with Menu A, I am always quite worried about creamy sauces but this was light, zingy and the dill was not too overpowering. I then had another mouthful and found a lump of cheese, which was a surprise, Chef later told me that it is common place to serve fish and cheese in Sicily, he used Emmenthal which didn’t upset the balance of flavours in the least. Menu B came with the most amazing dipping sauce and a tempura prawn on a bamboo skewer piecing crispy arancini. When you cut into the arancini, you just smelt Thailand, fragrant aromatics galore and black rice too. It was hard to fault either again but judging with my palate and my love of flavours….
Winner: Menu B – I was just enraptured by the whole flavour experience
Meat was up next and from Menu A Speck, Pistacchio di Bronte, Scarmorza and it looked stunning, beautiful pistacchio were strewn around the traditional looking arancini and crunchy speck adorned the top. The arancini did not deliver as much on flavour as I had hoped, I expected to taste more or the speck but overall flavours were very tasty.
Menu B presented Osso Bucco with Sicilian Provolone and as you cut into the crispy arancini the centre simply oozed out to reveal the wonderful tasting Osso Bucco which coupled with the sweet provolone made it a total delight. Again both arancini totally different in taste and texture. Winner:
Menu B – The flavours were stunning and I just loved the Osso Bucco.
Finally, our two valiant chefs came down and presented us with our final course, sweet. Menu B presented Cherry and Chocolate. I have to say at this point I am not a massive fan of anything sweet but in the interests of my judging duties I tried a mouthful of both. The cherry and chocolate arancini were a delight and the hazelnut in toffee was a beautiful addition. The filling inside the arancini was like a rich Nutella laced with cherry and Kirsch and it was wonderful. Menu A presented Gianduioso Chocolate and Carmel Sauce. It tasted wonderful, less sweet, which is always a win in my world ( Yes I know I’m weird) I dipped a small morsel of arancini into the caramel sauce and it again tasted lovely. I have to say at this point my fellow judges were lost in a world of chocolate heaven and there were lots of Mmmmmm’s and Mmmm Mmmm’s around the table.
Winner: Menu A – It was delicious and a lot less sweet and rich than its opposition
It was a very close run contest, I think I can honestly say that we all absolutely adored each mouthful we feasted on that afternoon, but there could be only one winner. Chef Umberto Caltabiano took the overall title of Best Balls 2013. I would like to thank the management and team at Carluccio’s in Upper Street for their wonderful hospitality and fabulous canapes after the competition had finished. Thank you to Camilla and to David and Hugh and to Claire for answering our questions and looking after us all so wonderfully but most of all thank you to Chef Umberto and Chef Luciano for presenting us with the most unimaginably amazing choice of arancini this side of Sicily. Bravo !
Some of the Photographs are very kindly supplied by Hugh Johnson you can see more here. The others are mine, noticeably mine 😉