by Anneli Rufus
Executive chef Devon Boisen marked the start of the halibut season at Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley last night with a dinner/spectacle that went up, eventually, in flames (but on purpose). Pan-seared Alaskan halibut with forest-mushroom strudel and chocolate manicotti with kumquat flambé (hence the flames) were part of a production punctuated by Boisen's sly riffs. "We've done what you're not supposed to do with Parma ham," he said as servers distributed plump smoked prawns with crisp Parma-ham cracklings, "and that's cook it." Of a corn fritter accompanying duck confit, he shrugged, "Call it a johnnycake, I don't care."
But the earth suddenly lurched on its axis with the inclusion, in the fourth course, of farro. I had never, ever, heard of this flattish grain that Boisen had prepared as a risotto with wild leeks and fava beans. Tuffy, who majored in Latin, muttered under his breath: "It's an ancient Roman form of wheat." And yes: It is the ancestor of modern wheats, one of the first plants ever domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, a staple in the ancient world for thousands of years, now considered a "relict species" and little grown but hailed in Italy as the "Grain of the Legions" because it was the standard ration of the Roman Legions as they marched far and wide expanding the empire. Boisen had prepared it as a risotto, with wild leeks and fava beans. And oh. Man. How can I never have heard of this? What North Berkeley rock have I lived under for decades to never, ever have even been dimly aware of this whole-grain marvel whose texture between the teeth (assertive yet curiously comforting) lies partway between steel-cut oats and what Boisen described as "like the best barley you've ever had"?
Psst. Entrepreneurs. Here's a free tip: This stuff could be bigger than quinoa.