isi e bisi, a dish that’s even more fun to say than piccalilli, is a Venetian springtime speciality, traditionally made to celebrate the feast of San Marco on 25 April, when the peas are at their smallest and sweetest … and still a long way off in the UK. Like many legumes, peas are best eaten as fresh as possible, before their natural sugars turn to starch, so it’s worth waiting until the local crop hits the market to make this satisfying supper – or better still, using your own if you’re fortunate enough to have access to the homegrown variety.
As Marcella Hazan explains in her comprehensive Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, “risi e bisi is not risotto with peas. It is a soup, albeit a very thick one,” which, when made properly, should be “runny enough to require a spoon”. Elizabeth David disagrees in Italian Food, recommending the use of a fork. These two grande dames would probably concur, however, that this is a fairly unbeatable summer supper.
The stars of the show, and the subject of much contradictory advice in the recipes I consult. Hazan is firm: “No alternative to fresh peas is suggested in the ingredients list because the essential quality of this dish resides in the flavour that only good, fresh peas possess”. Russell Norman’s Polpo cookbook confirms that “to make an authentic risi e bisi you need to use young peas, the smallest and tenderest you can find. This is not one of those dishes where frozen peas will do. Absolutely not. Sorry. You must use fresh peas.”
Katie Caldesi admits in Venice: Recipes Lost and Found that, in the absence of homegrown peas, she and her husband Giancarlo “found this recipe one of the hardest to perfect” – “no matter what peas, frozen or fresh, we used to make the stock … we just couldn’t get a flavour we were happy with”. The solution proved as surprising to Katie as it does to me: “Giancarlo suggested using tinned peas, which I didn’t think fitted the romantic image of the recipe using spring’s fresh new peas. However, he insisted on having a go, and I have to admit, through clenched teeth, he was right.”
Though I’m quite the aficionado of tinned mushy peas, I’ve never bought a can of the spherical kind before, and despite their off-putting appearance (“never seen such tiny olives,” observed a wag when I posted a picture online), it’s the texture I find hard to swallow. Soft and, yes, mushy, they’re not something I’d choose to eat as a side dish, but I’m amazed how well they work in the dish itself, especially in combination with the Caldesis’ ham stock and pancetta. The whole thing is deeply savoury, and as delicious as you’d expect from something that tastes a little like a very British pea and ham soup. However, it lacks the distinctive green sweetness of those using the fresh variety – good, but not perfect.
Nigella Lawson’s recipe in Forever Summer takes an equally pragmatic view of things and allows for the use of frozen peas, on the basis that “unless you are using youngest, freshest, flower-fragrant peas possible then you might as well just use frozen. Once a pea has sat on a shelf and begun turning to starch, then its supposed freshness – and thus its edge – has gone.” She’s right of course; some of the fresh peas I find have been imported from Italy, where the season is much further advanced, and they’re already large and mealy, so, for much of the year, sweet little petit pois fresh from the freezer are a much better bet. Get more flavour by cooking and pureeing some of them and then stirring this into the rice, as she suggests.
One of the advantages of fresh peas, however is that they’re sold in their pods, which can be added to the dish, as Hazan recommends, “to make the peas taste even sweeter”. She skins and trims a couple of handfuls of them (and trust me, you’ve never questioned what you’re doing with your life until you’ve spent 20 minutes clawing at empty pea pods) and cooks them along with the peas themselves, so they dissolve into the dish (they don’t, actually, though without the tough chewy fibrous bits I’ve peeled off, they’re pretty tasty), but it’s easier to go down Norman’s route and make a stock with them instead. No peeling required, though I cook mine for longer than he suggests, for a more assertive pea flavour – this yields a stronger colour, so the dish might not look as pretty, but it tastes great.
The peas themselves should be added towards the end of cooking, as he suggests – heretical as it might be to admit, simmer them for 20-odd minutes and they won’t be at their best.
Most of the recipes I try start with onion, gently cooked in a mixture of butter and olive oil, and David, the Caldesis and Norman also add pork, in the form of pancetta or fatty ham (this, I suspect, may have been the closest to pancetta it was possible to get when David’s Italian Food hit the market in 1954). Though certainly not essential, pork is an excellent match for peas, adding a subtle layer of meaty richness – and though either will work, it’s so hard to get fatty ham these days that pancetta is probably a better bet.
This may be a fresh, vegetable-cantered dish, but that doesn’t stop Hazan and David making it with veal stock, though, for variety, I try the latter’s alternative suggestion, chicken. The Caldesis call for chicken or ham, Lawson for chicken or vegetable, and Norman uses the stock made from the pea shells. Veal gives the dish a sticky beefiness that doesn’t feel quite right, ham is better, but testers unanimously prefer David’s chicken stock, which wears its richness, and its savoury qualities lightly. Use good fresh stuff if you can, rather than a cube, which do tend to be aggressively fowl-flavoured. If you’d prefer to keep things meat free, bear in mind most commercial vegetable stocks are too aggressively herby for delicately flavoured dishes like this, so choose carefully.
Not all Italian rice is created equal – according to Norman, carnaroli is best for this dish, while Hazan and the Caldesis favour the very Venetian vialone nano, and Lawson sits on the fence (David simply calls for rice, but perhaps that’s as specific as it was worth getting in the post-war years.) Either will do, but the higher starch content of vialone nano will yield a creamier result.
Both Lawson and David skip the usual constant stirring intended to liberate the starch in the rice, with the latter explaining that “risi e bisi is not cooked in quite the same way as the ordinary risotto, for it should emerge rather more liquid; it should not be stirred too much or the peas will break”. Instead, both recipes cover the pot and leave the dish to get on with things, while Hazan recommends stirring it occasionally, and Norman and the Caldesis deploy the traditional risotto method. Annoyingly, though you can get a perfectly delicious dish without stirring, testers much prefer the creamier versions seasoned with the sweat from my brow (not really), so if you’ve got the time, it’s worth the effort. Sorry.
The finishing touches
Everyone stirs in grated parmesan towards the end of cooking, and Norman, David and the Caldesis also add a knob of butter which is well worth the extravagance. Finish with parsley or, in a stroke of rather Anglo-Italian genius from Lawson and Norman, some chopped mint, which of course, is lovely with sweet peas. Serve with a spoon, or a fork, but certainly a napkin.
The perfect risi e bisi
1kg young peas in their pods
1l good chicken or vegetable stock
2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
100g pancetta (optional)
250g vialone nano rice (or carnaroli if you can’t find)
50g parmesan, finely grated
Small handful of mint or flat-leaf parsley leaves
Pod the peas. Fill a pan with 1.5l of water and put just enough pods in there to be submerged. Discard the rest. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for a 30-60 minutes until reduced by about half.
Strain and discard the pods. Add the pea liquid to the chicken stock and bring back to a simmer.
In a heavy based saucepan, melt half the butter with the oil, and then add the onion and cook until it begins to soften. Add the pancetta and cook for another five minutes or so, until it begins to release its fat.
Stir in the rice and cook until all the grains are well coated with fat and begin to look translucent, then turn up the heat a little and add a ladleful of stock. Cook, stirring all the while, until most of the liquid has been absorbed, then repeat until the rice is tender and the dish has a thick, soupy consistency (you may not need all the stock). Add the peas after about 12 minutes.
Once the dish is ready, stir in the cheese and remaining butter, cover and leave to sit for five minutes. Season to taste, divide between shallow bowls and top with the herbs.