I love the significance we ascribe to food, the memories certain dishes evoke. Most of mine take me back to Granny’s kitchen: the smell of frying bacon will always put me by her Aga on a crisp blue winter’s morning; whenever I eat shortbread, I can see her taking a pale gold slab out of the oven; the only reason I can stomach sprouts at Christmas is because she was supremely disapproving of fussiness and insisted I always ate two of the bitter green buggers. But the dish to which I’ve assigned almost troubling levels of importance is one that as far as I’m aware, my grandmother never made: risotto.
The thing about risotto is this: if you’re going to make it for someone other than yourself, you need to mean it. It’s a declaration, a commitment. It’s not something you can throw together; you have to put the time in. At what point did I realise this? It starts, like all our best anecdotes, with lust.
My university boyfriend was the first person to make me risotto, shortly after we became an official couple. As we were students, he would chuck in whatever veg he could find in the fridge, but even when you can’t afford fancy ingredients, if you get the method right, the simplest risotto will still feel like riches. That said, I haven’t come across a risotto recipe that includes green pepper since then, and I suspect there’s a reason for that, but love is wanting to cook for someone – then doing it.
My next boyfriend was a more confident cook, as evidenced by his making carbonara the very first weekend we spent together. He recounted a conversation with one of his friends that took place before I arrived. “What are you cooking her for dinner?” asked the friend, and on hearing the reply, gave a knowing grin and said “I see.” Risotto didn’t feature until later in that relationship, but when it did, it was a step up from those earlier student efforts – mainly because this boyfriend’s housemate had worked as a chef, so she taught him how to make it.
Four years after that carbonara supper, we moved in together, in Brighton. After a couple of months sharing a flat with two men who both had rather eccentric attitudes to food – one seemed to eat mostly sausages, while the other appeared to live on chicken and vegetables – we found a gorgeous studio flat we could just about afford, and moved a week before Christmas.
I came late to cooking, despite having a grandmother who cooked from scratch at least six days a week. There seemed so much potential for disaster in the kitchen – burnt pans, food poisoning – but in the last five or six years, I’ve become exceptionally fond of feeding people. On quiet Sundays, when maybe I don’t have much on and I feel I should be writing but my brain is too twitchy, too wired, I know what I need to do. I need to chop and weigh and measure and stir. But it wasn’t always that way.
Our new place was on the seafront, and in winter months, the burnt skeleton of the old pier sat shrouded in mist like a sullen spider. It was there I finally fell in love with cooking, as despite being a studio flat, it had a proper kitchen. We could at last have friends over for supper – even though our dining table was only big enough for two so guests had to sit on armchairs, the floor, or our bed. More importantly, we could cook together, glasses of wine in hand, taking it in turns to stir. A team of two. We made risotto a lot that year, I think.
At the end of the year in the seafront studio, mental stability skittered out of my grasp like marbles on bare floorboards, and was replaced with wave after wave of utter panic. Looking back, it didn’t really last that long – November and December were the worst months, and in the second week of January 2017, I finally took my GP’s suggestion of antidepressants. It was barely three months by the calendar, but when you spend almost every minute of those months convinced you’re about to die, it’s a lifetime’s worth of terror.
I remember coming back to myself so clearly, as the medication took effect. I hadn’t taken pleasure in any of the things that usually made me happy since the autumn, and when I finally felt able to cook again, the first thing I wanted to make was risotto. I pictured it: a simple recipe, peas and spinach stirred through creamy rice – green against white, to remind me that spring was on its way. Panic untethers you, sends you vibrating into the atmosphere. You can’t focus on anything other than the montage of horrors your brain plays on a loop, so of course you can’t cook. Or read, or lose yourself in a film, or find the pocket-sized sliver of joy in a new nail polish or eyeliner.
Risotto requires focus, as I’ve said. Calm concentration, slow, even breathing, a mind that ticks in an ordered rhythm. It’s a great analogy for life – to get the best results you have to be fully present. It seems like an intimidating thing for a beginner, but it’s not as hard as people make it sound. And perhaps most apt of all: just when you think it’s never going to come right – you’re nearly out of stock but the rice is still a bit too firm – suddenly it does, and you wonder why you ever panicked. You can’t do risotto by halves – which is why you shouldn’t cook it for someone you fancy unless you’re serious about them.
I have been tricked by risotto, and a man who made it. Hardly his fault – how was he to know the significance of arborio rice and stock? But he turned up at my flat on a weeknight, stayed for two days, and I arrived home from work to find him making a squash and blue cheese risotto in my kitchen. Which required, as you’ll notice, multiple pans. You have to roast the squash first. His cooking wrote a cheque his heart couldn’t cash, and I really am that easy to romance. Three months later, I ended it and, when drunk with friends, exclaimed furiously, “I just think risotto isn’t a casual hook-up dinner!” They knew what I meant.
Risotto is a love letter, perhaps even a love language. A relationship milestone, an act of generosity. Only cook it when you mean it – not everyone you fall for is worthy of the calm, quiet presence it requires. There is one person however who will always be worthy of that generosity, that love – you. Cook risotto for yourself as often as you can be bothered. You will always deserve it.