Barley risotto: Italians might not approve but this time they’re wrong

JP McMahon: This wild and uncouth version is a winner in my world

Is it unfair to say that the only difference between risotto and paella is that you stir one and don’t stir the other? Of course it is. Yet it’s something I tell my students as a joke to make them realise the shared history of European food traditions.

Can you make a risotto with barley? In my world you can. However, I don’t know how they would feel about this wild and uncouth version in Milan, where all is suave and silky. Pop quiz: is there such a thing as risotto rice? Answer: no. Risotto is not a type of rice but the actual dish. The types of rice used are high-starch short-grain varieties such arborio, carnaroli and vialone nano.

Risotto hails from northern Italy and began life, as did many dishes, as peasant fare before being adopted by the wealthy. The first recipe dates from about 1826. However, probably the most famous 19th-century recipe is for saffron risotto (risotto alla Milanese) from Pellegrino Artusi's La Scienza in Cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, 1891).

How to make mushroom and barley ‘risotto’

Dice one onion and mince one garlic clove. Heat some cold-pressed rapeseed oil in a pan with a little butter. When the butter starts to foam, add the onion and garlic with a pinch of sea salt, a bay leaf and some fresh thyme. Fry until translucent and then add 250g of chopped chestnut mushrooms (or try some of the wonderful mushroom varieties from Garryhinch).


When the mushrooms are soft, add a splash of cider and reduce until evaporated. Add 250g of barley and cook for a minute to ensure the flavours wrap themselves around the rice. Add a ladle of warm vegetable stock and simmer until it evaporates. Continue this process for about 30 minutes, adding a ladle or two at a time until the barley is plump and beautiful. To finish, whip a generous amount of butter into the barley, add a handful of grated Hegarty’s cheddar and some chopped chives. Season to taste.