Although I live in Tuscany, I was born far to the north in the city of Venice. I am very proud of this fact, and that for most of my life I have been greeted with admiring and impressed faces when I answer the question ‘Where in Italy are you from?’ According to tradition, the city was founded at midday precisely on Friday 25th March, 421 a fact needing to be taken with all the pinches of salt in the Venetian lagoon’s waters. However, it remained an independent republic, headed up by an elected duke known as the doge until 1797 when it was conquered by Napoleon. More than a city, it had been the centre of a large trading empire, stretching to the Middle East.
Risi e bisi—Venetian dialect for rice and peas—is one of the most traditional and important dishes from the area. In republican times it was served to the doge during the annual celebrations of the city’s patron Saint Mark on 25th April. It is really a pea risotto, usually with the addition of odori (a mixture of onion, carrot, and celery) and pancetta. As is the northern Italian tradition it is made with butter, rather than olive oil, and flavoured with the addition of parmesan cheese.
As a flavour combination, rice and peas is an exquisite one. And if made with light home-made vegetable broth, this risotto has a remarkable freshness as you crunch the al dente vegetables hidden like jewels in the haystack of plump, re-hydrated rice. I often think it’s a shame to add parmesan cheese to this risotto as it tends to compete too heavily with the vegetables. For this variation therefore, I have added a crispy crown of parmesan, which adds a crunchy texture to the risotto and gives you the option of eating mouthfuls with, or without cheese. It also gives the dish a regal air, befitting of those spring banquets in the Doge’s Palace in times gone by. On top of the crown I sprinkled black pepper, and the other traditional garnish for risi e bisi, mouth-puckering fennel seeds. Buon appetito!
Risi e bisi
Preparation time: 15 mins
Cooking time: 50 mins
Total time: 1hr 5 mins
For the vegetable broth:
5 litres (10 pints) mineral water
1 onion, peeled and halved
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into 2cm (1 inch) chunks
2 sticks of celery, cut into 2cm (1 inch) chunks
1 tomato, halved
1 bay leaf
10 parsley leaves
For the parmesan crown:
100g (3 1/2 ounces) parmigiano reggiano, grated
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
For the risotto:
30g (1 ounce) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 stick of celery, diced
100g (3 1/2 ounces) pancetta, diced
400g (14 ounces) peas
Make the vegetable broth:
1. Put all the ingredients in a large saucepan.
2. Bring to the boil and simmer for 35 minutes.
3. Cover and leave to cool for 10 minutes.
Make the parmesan crown:
1. Heat the oven to 210° C (400° F).
2. Place the cheese on a silicon mat on a baking tray and spread out.
3. Put in the oven for 5 minutes.
4. Remove from the oven and scatter the pepper and fennel seeds over the top.
5. Leave to cool and then cut out rings using pastry cutters.
Make the risotto:
1. Put the butter and olive oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan and melt over a medium heat.
2. Bring 1 1/2 litres (3 pints) of the stock to the boil in a separate saucepan.
3. Add the onion, carrot, celery, pancetta, peas, and salt. Fry until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes.
4. Add the rice and stir for 2 minutes.
5. Add the stock to the rice a ladleful at a time until incorporated, stirring to ensure that it doesn’t stick to the pan.
6. Keep going until the rice is al dente, about 20 minutes.
7. Serve in bowls topped with the parmesan crown.