A few months ago I was contacted by the very lovely Millie Johnson, who works in the PR and Marketing department for Carluccios. We had been chatting on Twitter about madeleines that week, although at the time I didn’t realise where she worked, and she asked me if I liked arancini and if so, would I be interested in helping to judge an arancini competition. Naturally, I jumped at the chance.
If you’re not familiar with arancini, they are a deep-fried rice balls which originated in Sicily, usually stuffed with meat and cheese. Oddly, although they are a common street food in Sicily, they don’t seem to be found in London’s food markets. Not that I’ve noticed anyway.
The ‘Best Balls’ arancini challenge came about following some friendly Twitter banter between Carluccio’s and chef Umberto Caltabiano. Carluccio’s put forward their Sicilian chef Luciano Nastasi and both he and Umberto created a four course arancini menu each.
When I first read the two menus, I immediately loved both but menu A jumped out at me more than menu B. There was nothing wrong with B, its just that menu A had all my favourite ingredients in it.
So last Sunday, myself and fellow food blogger Gemma Gannon who writes The Boozy Rouge, arrived at Carluccio’s Islington branch at the same time. We made our way inside and met Millie and the fantastic food photographer Hugh Johnson, who I was already a big fan of. (Please have a look at his website as his photos are wonderful). Also joining us was photographer David Gatenby and food blogger Anita Clare-Field, who writes Lover Of Flavours.
Armed with glasses of prosecco, we sat down and the first course came out. From menu A, “Alla Norma” – Aubergine with a tomato and ricotta sauce…
Immediately you can see that they look beautiful. They were perfectly round and had a gloriously light, even, crispy crust and when you cut into them, they were ozzingly soft and creamy inside. I loved this. It could have so easily been stodgy but it wasn’t, it was as light as air. And the fact that it contained my favourite vegetable, aubergine, also helped. The aubergine and tomato were deliciously rich and the ricotta added a lovely creaminess and saltiness to it.
Then there was the vegetable offering for menu B: Mushroom and taleggio arancini on an artichoke puree…
As you can see, these ‘balls’ were oval in shape and a lot smaller. I loved that the chef had made them look like toadstools by topping them with a mushroom ‘hat’. These were also delicious and full of flavour. The coating was a lot thicker and the texture of the rice was a lot more dense that the previous arancini. The mushrooms were so punchy and earthy and the taleggio worked beautifully with them, as did the artichoke puree that they were sitting on.
Verdict: Menu A. As much as I love mushrooms, the aubergine arancini won it for me in this round. The crust, which I later found out was a simple mix of flour and water, was just so delicate and light and the centre was so rich and creamy, I loved it.
Next up, the fish course. From menu A, Creamy Smoked Salmon with Lemon Zest and Dill…
Again, these were perfectly round and had a golden, light, crunchy crust. There was a generous amount of salmon and dill but I wasn’t 100% convinced by the Emmental cheese.
It was very tasty and I would have been very pleased to eat it, had I ordered it in a restaurant, but it was up against menu B’s offering of Thai prawn…
This was really beautiful. Again this chef’s arancini were a lot smaller and the crust was darker and thicker. As you can see, the chef used squid ink rice, which I seem to have a mental block about. But tasting it, it was stunning. It was like a party in your mouth. The arancini also came with a chilli and coriander dipping sauce which Gemma particularly loved. It was too spicy for me personally.
Verdict: Menu B. The Thai flavours worked so well and the flavours were so punchy that they made the salmon arancini appear just a little too subtle. Normally the salmon one would have been perfectly lovely but when compared to the Thai prawn, it faded into the background.
What did make me laugh was that every step of the eating and judging process was interrupted by a flurry of photographs by everyone on cameras and/or phones.
Next was the third, meat course. Menu A gave us Speck, Pistachio di Bronte and Scamorza arancini. (We later heard that the pistachios were specially sent over from Sicily by Luciano’s mum).
This was wonderful. Thin, crispy, light crust and a very generous filling of salty speck, creamy scamorza and crunchy pistachios. It all worked beautifully together. It was heavier than the previous courses, naturally, and by this time I was really filling up. But if this had come out first, I would have polished it off happily.
Menu B’s meat course was Osso Bucco with Sicilian Provolone.
Smaller and oblong in shape, again with a thicker and darker crust, the first taste I got was saffron. To be honest, I didn’t really get the flavour of the osso bucco. This arancini was very rich but it was accompanied by the most delicious tomato (and I think roasted red pepper) sauce. It was so fresh and so full of flavour that it saved the dish for me.
Verdict: Menu A. I just loved the combination of the speck with the pistachios and the creamy cheese. It was full of contrasting textures and flavours that worked so well together.
And finally, the sweet course. This was the one I was most looking forward to. I had never tried or even heard of a sweet arancini before so I was intrigued. And this time the two chefs presented their dishes in person.
And so, from menu A, the dish I’d most been looking forward to: Gianduisos Chocolate and Caramel sauce…
Again, a flurry of photographs (this one taken by Hugh Johnson)…
This was simply heaven. Biting into it, you got a hit of chocolate with chopped hazelnuts which reminded me of Nutella, then of a giant Ferrero Rocher! Wonderful! Loved it. And the caramel sauce that came with it was divine. Gemma and I were scooping it out of the dish with our fingers, long after the arancini themselves were polished off.
And menu B: Cherry and Chocolate…
Beautifully presented, and placed on a rich, tangy cherry sauce, this was very good but for me, it didn’t hit the spot. However, I was in the minority. Everyone else seemed to prefer this one. I personally didn’t find it sweet enough for my taste. Had it been chocolate and raspberry, it would have been a different story altogether as I prefer raspberry with chocolate, but that’s a personal thing.
I love this shot that Hugh took of the sweet arancini carnage…
Verdict: Menu A. This was a no-brainer for me. Chocolate, hazelnuts and caramel? Perfection.
By the time we had finished, we were all rubbing our expanding tummies, but very happy after a wonderful afternoon of fantastic food, lots of prosecco and great chat.
We added up our scores and handed them to Millie and were then told that Liciano was responsible was menu A and Umberto, for menu B.
The end result was very close and it turned out that Umberto won the first two courses with his mushroom arancini and his Thai prawn arancini, and Luciano won the second two courses with his speck and pistachio and his chocolate and caramel. But the overall winner was Umberto who edged ahead by just a couple of points.
And then more food came out! Even though I was stuffed, I still managed to wolf down quite a few canapes.
And there it was…a truly fabulous Sunday spent in the company of really lovely and interesting people, eating the most delicious arancini I have ever tasted and drinking lots and lots of prosecco.