White ragù—Italian meat sauce without tomatoes—is one of my all time favourite dishes. I learnt it as a teenager from my Italian step-grandmother in her kitchen in Venice. She was noted for her ragù and people were forever asking her how she made it but, of course, she wouldn’t tell. But one summer morning while I was having breakfast, she called me over to the kitchen stove and allowed me to watch her make it. And I discovered the three secrets behind the taste.
We’ve been waking up to temperatures of about -4°C at La Madera this week, proving that the Mediterranean climate is an extreme one. So, while we wait for the return of the 38°C days we experienced last summer, it’s time for winter comfort food: and here’s some from my childhood, pasta e fagioli, or as they say in Venice, pasta e fasioi.
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.