A new series from ItalyNewsOnline delving into the culinary delights of Italy. We start in Venice with a basic dish, which has become a staple in many Veneto kitchens, risi e bisi (rice and peas/pea risotto).
It was raining when I first visited Venice; I later moved to Veneto and have enjoyed the ethereal city in all weathers. Rain is what the region desperately needs more of now as the river Po sinks to its lowest level for 70 years and the rice fields that it helps irrigate are in danger of drying up.
Rice has been a staple of the Italian diet for centuries. One of the country’s most famous dishes is risotto, and the Venetian rice and peas (risi e bisi) is a variation on that theme.
Venice and rice
The origins of Venice are as shrouded as the island had become that first time I visited, as the clouds sank lower and emptied their contents in a fine mist. The stroke of noon March 25th 421AD is the traditional date of the city’s founding. In the years between its founding and the election of its first Doge around 726AD ports were built and settlements were expanded. Venice’s position at the head of the Adriatic made its military and merchant naval position almost invincible.
Venice, between the ninth and twelfth centuries, flourished – a trade centre between the Western and Eastern empires. The city gained many towns and cities along the Adriatic in order to prevent piratical activity. Venice had its weaknesses; a lack of farming land meant that wheat was its major import. Its primary export was salt. However, rice was grown on the plains of the river Po and became a staple of the Venetian diet.
The Doges’ decree
The Doge was the ruler of Venice. The Doge’s Palace stands at the corner of St. Mark’s Piazza on the Grand Canal. On feast days the Doge would decree Risi e Bisi, or pea risotto, could be made and eaten by Venetians. Luckily no such decrees are required now, pea risotto can be made and enjoyed any day of the year.
Rice and Peas (Risi e Bisi) Recipe
- 1 medium onion, finely sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 400g good risotto rice such as arborio, carnaroli or vialone
- Olive oil – a generous glug (approx. 4-5 tbsp)
- 100g unsalted butter
- 3 ½ lbs of unshelled peas
- Bunch of parsley – very finely chopped
- 100g grated Parmagiano cheese –and more to serve
- 250ml of dry white wine
- 2 litres of water
- Shell the peas and make a pea broth from the discarded pods, a pinch of salt and pepper and about two litres of water.
- Gently sauté the onion and garlic in the oil and 1/3 of the butter until the onion starts to colour slightly.
- Add the rice to the pan and stir over a gentle heat for 3-5 minutes ensuring that all the rice is coated.
- Add the pea broth, a ladle or two at a time, stirring constantly. When the broth is almost completely absorbed add the next ladle or two. Intersperse the wine with the broth.
- Keep cooking this way for about 20 minutes over a low heat.
- Add the peas and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. The rice will be creamy but retain a slight bite, ‘al dente’, and the peas will have started to soften.
- At the last moment add the cheese and parsley; give a quick stir to mix them in.
Hints and Tips
It is important that the correct type of rice is used for making risotto. Risotto rice needs to be short and plump. The best risotto rices are Carnaroli and Arborio. These rice grains release starch and absorb liquids making them ideal for the sticky risotto dish.