Umbrian Farro Pilaf with Fennel, Roasted Grapes and Mozzarella

Although my focus is on Mediterranean cuisine, I am passionately interested in the food of any culture that believes in simple seasonal cooking. That said, I’m definitely not a fan of the meaty, carb-loaded cuisine of Eastern Europe from whence I have just returned. HOWEVER, in Bratislava, I can see a truly exciting change in the way that food is sourced and prepared as more and more people choose to opt for a healthier lifestyle. The predominance of vegetarian and vegan food in the city is truly astonishing. On the Sunday that we were there, for example, the weekly covered market was given over to an entirely vegan offering served up alongside a reggie DJ and a series of animated talks by local producers. Even more inspiring is Fresh Market, a purpose-built brutalist-style warehouse that is designed to celebrate locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables sold by farmers in a market setting surrounded by open kiosks occupied by independent makers selling everything from artisan cheeses, home-made jams, honey and pickles to organic wines and spices. The first floor is given over to over 50 independent cooks showcasing a world of different cuisines each of them offering vegetarian food. Now if you think that this is some kind of trendy conceptual foodie theme park for the rich you would be wrong. Everything is super keenly priced with an emphasis on giving food producers and makers an economical way of promoting and selling their wares. Amen to that. Here’s a recipe that was inspired by the baskets of just-picked grapes we saw in all the markets. There was no uniformity in their shape and colour, they came as they are and were all the more beautiful for it. In this recipe, I’ve used farro, an ancient grain belonging to the wheat family which is widely used across northern Italy. It has a taste and texture similar to that of barley – nutty and chewy – making it a perfect base for hearty salads, soups and farrotto, a dish that uses farro in the place of rice and is prepared in the same way as a traditional risotto. I bring mine back from Italy but it’s available in most leading supermarkets and online.

Farro and Fennel Pilaf


Extra-virgin olive oil
1 white onion, finely chopped
I large fennel bulb, finely chopped
350g farro, soaked overnight, rinsed and drained
500ml of good quality vegetable stock
Small bunch of red grapes
1 tbsp raspberry vinegar (you can also use balsamic vinegar)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to your taste
1 ball of mozzarella
Fresh dill, finely chopped

For the dressing:
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 tsp of unrefined golden caster sugar
Half tsp of Dijon mustard
4 tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to your taste

How I make it

Heat an oven to 180C.

Make the dressing by gently combining all the ingredients with a hand whisk and seasoning to your taste.

Heat a large frying pan, add a generous splash of extra-virgin olive oil and bring it up to temperature. Add the chopped onion and fennel, turn down the heat and leave to gently sauté for around 10 minutes until translucent. Add the farro and stir around for a few minutes until the grains are coated with the onion mixture.

Add the stock and bring to the boil. Partially cover, turn down the heat and allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes, testing after 10 minutes and regularly after that until you achieve the texture you’re looking for (it’s traditional to serve it with a bit of bite).

Meanwhile, place the grapes on a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar. Lightly season and roast in the oven until the grapes begin to wrinkle and split, around 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

When the faro is cooked, season to your taste and tumble it on to a pretty plate. Tear up the mozzarella and place it on top alongside the cooled roasted grapes. Garnish with chopped dill. This dish is lovely served straight away or at room temperature.

Serve with a green salad, slices of lime and the dressing on the side.

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