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(Francis) Bacon and Prawns in Rome

Sunday, March 20, 2011 Every recipe has a story and this one starts a while ago now, on a day when my heart is like pulp and I make a crazy, impulsive decision to close the gallery for two weeks and to jump on the next available flight to London. And so I do and it just so happens that it stops over in Rome for twenty-four hours, which goes to show that every cloud does have a silver lining……

We’ll have to skip a page or three, or these entries are going to become chapters, not vignettes and I’m afraid I’ll lose you.

I have just spent a glorious, rain soaked morning in Rome, where I – lucky I - have secured the very last ticket to see the Caravaggio and Francis Bacon exhibition at the exquisite and ornate Villa Borghese, all white and gold elegance.

There amidst the marbles and the gilded paradisiacal scenes, the Berninis and the Basanos, hang twenty or so works each by Caravaggio and Bacon. It’s a bizarre pairing and there’s no suggestion of an artistic lineage between them, though if there is any attempt to draw comparison between them, it is in the raw "existential carnality" (Francis Bacon's words, but I wish they were mine) of both.

Caravaggio holds a torch, a magnifying glass to life, right down to its dirty fingernails. Here I am somnambulantly walking along, hardly seeing at all, caught up in the claustrophobic maelstrom of my own mind, when suddenly I am slapped in the face by the master and brought back to my senses. Everything is made exponentially alive and Saint Paul's epiphany is for a brief moment, mine. 

I am systematically being prized open so that by the time I get to the Bacons, I feel unzipped and just about ready to howl.

Here is Bacon's grief at watching his lover die, squirming and writhing itself onto the canvas, more blood than paint. And here is my reflection through the painting's glass (Bacon’s deliberate device), juxtaposed onto the oozing viscera and so it is I left eviscerated on the unmade bed. It is not a pretty sight.

I wish I were the kind of person that could be brought to God and truth by sitting, rod - straight back, placidly watching breath in, breath out but I don’t seem to be. Don’t know if anyone is really. I think it takes being smashed to smithereens by life and love a few times myself (or perhaps just once, but cataclysmically) Bacon isn't afraid to reveal his own torment, to plunge you into it - the whole bloody mess of it. Brave man.

I walk out of there (my secret therapy session), into the drizzling rain, a lightness in my step, as if I have been understood and go about the second part of my mission which is to find the famous Harry’s Bar and to eat Champagne and Prawn risotto. As it turns out, it’s not far away at all.

I immediately feel underdressed (as in not smart enough) Inside; it is all mirrored black walls and an air of plush sophistication I can’t live up to. I am sorry to report (and I kicked myself afterwards) that I just can’t quite bring myself to go in a) alone and b) looking more and more like a drowned rat every minute in what’s become a proper downpour. Or perhaps it’s just that I can’t quite justify the $82.00 for a plate of Prawn and Champagne risotto. I cannot tell you how out of character this is…but this trip is extravagance enough.

By the time I’m back home, two and a half weeks later,

I am obsessed with making Prawn and Champagne risotto and anyway, I console myself, it makes much more sense to eat this on the shores of a wild Pacific Ocean then in inner city Rome.

And so within days I make the risotto and it’s absolutely worth waiting for. I know it’s going to become a staple, which it does, though until tonight, none quite match the first attempt and I’ll tell you the whys and wherefores.

Critically - and I’m sorry but no substitute will do – you will have to procure some Vialone Nano rice. Simon Johnson stocks a good one, which you can order on line and which if you live round here, you can get from the lovely Lisa at Citrus in Byron Bay.

Look the last couple of times, including with very good friends coming for dinner, I ended up using bog standard Arborio from a bog standard supermarket – bad planning on my part – serves me right. Even with the best will in the world, it only ends up a bog standard, gluggy gloop, even if it tastes OK. So this time I get my act together.

Vialone Nano can absorb a great deal of liquid and still maintain its shape and texture. You’ll see from the picture how separate the grains remain, even when perfectly cooked.

Again, I’m cooking for two, so the quantities are tame, though actually far less tame than those given on the back of the packet. These suggest a mere 50g of uncooked rice per person, I suppose in mind of the proper Italian way with risotto as a “Primi” and rarely as a main course, the way we might eat it. So I increase the sum to 160g between the two of us and it turns out to be an elegant sufficiency, especially given the dessert that follows.

This time my planning (or is it just fluke?) has stretched as far as having homemade fish stock in the freezer. At some point I’ll have simmered some prawn heads and shells and maybe a few other bits and pieces, with a small onion, a clove of garlic or two and a pinch of salt, then frozen the strained stock in old yoghurt containers of differing sizes. It’s useful in laksas, curries and this risotto.

The Risotto

I begin by frying a small-diced red onion in a fat knob of butter, about 25g. When it’s translucent and a softer shade of pink, I add the rice and fry over a medium heat, till it too looses opacity. Then I add a couple of cloves of finely chopped garlic, the hot fish stock, a half cup at a time, stirring all the while, right into the sides of the pan. Alternately, I continue to add another cup of stock, two of Champagne, a little at a time, so that each addition is fully integrated, before adding the next, so that by now the risotto is taking on the soft blush of pink, the intoxicating waft of Champagne, the gentleness of poached garlic; it's lovely and sloppy and not even remotely mushy. With minutes to go, I melt another knob of butter into a frying pan and throw in a generous 400g of chilli prawns, courtesy of the Byron Bay Fishmonger.

I let them caramelise on both sides, before tossing them and their juices into the risotto. Then a restrained handful of chopped parsley, a final glug of Champagne, a little more butter, a scrunch of salt, a twist of pepper and the risotto is ready to rest. Long enough for me to pour boiling water into 2 deep plates, to warm them, to dry them off.

I fill the plates, a few beautifully browned prawns as crowning glory,

A scattering of chopped parsley leaves and there you go. Ready to eat, mouthful by slow mouthful, the remaining half bottle of Champers adding to the mellow perfection of it all.

And so I’ve made a Prawn and Champagne risotto and I might never know for sure, but I’ll wager that it’s just as good as Harry’s. All I need now is to discover the next Francis Bacon.


You could also toss a few tiger prawns in a chilli and garlic paste, grill them to a char and add as a final flourish to the risotto.

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