A young shrimp is perplexed as to why all his family walk backwards. He wants to walk forwards, so decides to teach himself. The first day is a disaster: he trips over his tail and crushes one leg with another. Undefeated, he practises. “My son!” weeps his mother. “Get a grip,” his dad says, “and walk like your family, who love you so much.” Now, the shrimp loves his family, too, but knows he must walk on. After a while, he meets three frogs. One tells him the world is going wrong, another that what he is doing is dangerous, while the third simply says: “Oh dear, oh dear.” But the shrimp continues until he hears a voice: “I was like you,” an old shrimp tells him. “Thought I could teach shrimps to walk forwards, but they turned their backs on me. Go back, or end up alone like me.” The young shrimp stays silent; he knows he is doing the right thing, and walks forwards.
I first heard the story of the young shrimp at a children’s theatre in Rome. It is from a collection called Favole al Telefono (Telephone Tales), by Gianni Rodari. Later, it became a bedtime story, read so often it got under our skin. And now it bobs up at the very mention of prawns, and especially when I pull off 10 legs and feel like the trouble in the tale. But I put them to good use, along with the shells and heads, and make a broth for risotto. There is a telephone tale for chopping, too: Cipollino, a little onion boy who leads an uprising of garden vegetables – courgette, radish, leek – against their tyrannical landowner, Prince Lemon.
Born in 1920 near Lake Orta in Piedmont, Rodari was the son of a baker who became a teacher and saw how students responded to stories. When war began, he joined the resistance and enrolled in the Italian communist party, writing articles, including some for children, for the party newspaper, l’Unità. In Rome, he continued to write articles, publish stories and books (30 in total), which are cherished by generations. Like teaching, politics accompanied Rodari’s life, and his beliefs are threaded through his work. Solidarity, friendship, doing the right thing, not losing your feet and standing up to bullies are recurring themes in his surreal, vivid, optimistic stories.
The Telephone Tales begin with the introduction of Signor Bianchi, a travelling salesman who, like Rodari, has a daughter he calls every night with a story. Rabbits who hunt, a man made of butter, buildings of ice-cream, a nose that runs away – stories so good that even the ladies at the telephone exchange would stop working and listen in.
And Rodari’s young prawn? Having escaped the risotto trouble, did he go far, or make a fortune? We don’t know, only that he is still walking forwards with courage. Buon viaggio!
400g prawns in their shells, or 300g ready-peeled prawns
2 bay leaves
A few peppercorns
1½ litres water (or, if using peeled prawns, 1.4 litres light fish stock)
1 small onion, peeled and very finely diced
1 stick of celery, very finely diced
The tender heart of a small bulb of fennel, very finely diced
2 tbsp olive oil
350g risotto rice – arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano
150ml dry white wine or prosecco
Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon and fresh fennel fronds, to finish
Peel the prawns, saving the shells, and use a toothpick to ease out any “veins”. Put the prawn peelings, bay leaves and peppercorns in a pan, cover with the water and add a pinch of salt. Bring up to a gentle boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Strain into a clean pan and keep the stock warm at the back of the stove. (If you are using peeled prawns, put the fish stock in a pan and warm likewise.)
In a large saute pan, gently fry the diced vegetables in the butter and olive oil with a pinch of salt over a medium-low flame, until soft and turning translucent. Add the rice and stir so every grain glistens and clatters against the sides of the pan. Add the wine and allow to wooosh and evaporate, then look at the clock.
Add the prawn or fish stock a ladle at a time, stirring attentively until all the liquid is absorbed before adding the next ladleful. Continue adding the stock ladle by ladle, adding the prawns in the last few minutes of cooking: work on the principle that the total cooking time will be 17-20 minutes, depending on the rice. The risotto is ready when the rice is plump and firm, but without any chalky bite, and the consistency is soft, fluid and creamy – keep tasting.
Take the pan off the heat, beat in the lemon zest and any spare fennel fronds, then serve.