“To bless the holy Spring, which makes a garden a paradise, all I need is a soup bowl, a soup bowl of our own risi e bisi. There in hundreds of tiny little globes, I savour a tender green jewel of the earth scattered in a white sea of tender smiles”  Domenico Varagnolo (Italian Poet 1882-1947)

Although shipped to southern Italy by the Aragonese in the 15thc, rice became well suited to the micro-climates of northern Italy, and just as pasta had become the staple carbohydrate of the south, risotto was to become the main food of the north. So in late spring, when tender young  peas begin to appear amidst the water-bound grocers of Venice, Risi e Bisi (Rice with Peas) is one of the first companion dishes to herald the new season in the Veneto region.

The dish, when carefully cooked, should be a cross between a soup and a pudding and exhibit a ‘wave’ (all’onda) as you caress the steeping rice with your Girariso (a wooden spoon with a hole in the middle, not unlike an early Barbara Hepworth).

Maintaining a delicate viscosity throughout should be the aim. Try and avoid ending up with something that requires a knife rather than an ethereal pass of a spoon to disturb the surface. I point out the obvious here as during the early establishment of many Italian restaurants in the UK, cooks seem to have followed the post-war British home-cooking habits of rigorous boiling and relentless thickening. Standing your fork up in a risotto, is not the look we seek. Coincidently, this was also an era which, in order to apparently lighten the burden of the traditional housewife, dehydration proved to be the siren call of the food industry. Mashed potato, custard, high-vis-coloured desserts and (most popular of all) gravy granules, appeared as culinary moon-dust, and when introduced to liquids, first swelled alarmingly then set to an almost impenetrable state. With a fine disregard for convention, similar thickeners were often cited in early Risotto recipes.

I later remembered a radio series of the time – BBC’s Hancock’s Half Hour – which summed up the concept in the episode entitled ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home’. There’s a line where Tony Hancock refers to Hattie Jacques’ cooking of her customary Sunday roast,  ”…and I thought my mother was a bad cook, but at least her gravy used to move about. Yours just sort of lies there and sets”.

Alarm bells from a not too distant past still summon at this observation, albeit the rest of the sixty year old episode is still a hoot. So it was that by inference; many mistakenly felt that ‘set’ indicated cooked, ‘fluid’ apparently suggested unfinished.

Immobile and stiffened is not the consistency this rice dish, or those sweet young peas, require.

This culinary Venetian love affair, like its canals, should remain forever fluid.

“…a white sea of tender smiles”

Risi e Bisi from Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy (2014)

300g fresh peas

1.5 litres of chicken stock, or stock made by boiling the pea pods

1 tbsp olive oil

40g unsalted butter

2 slices pancetta or unsmoked bacon, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

250g risotto rice (I use carnaroli rice)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tsp sugar

2 tbsp finel chopped parsley

4 tbsp grated parmesan

Shell the peas and bring the stock to the boil.

Heat the oil and half the butter in a large pan and sweat the pancetta or bacon with the onion over low heat until the onion is soft ad translucent

Add the fresh peas and the sugar and stir fora minute or so

Pour in the boiling stock, bring back to the boil and add the rice

Add salt and pepper and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the rice is al dente

Stir in the rest of the butter, the parsley and cheese, and serve in soup plates (I have found this final aspect key to a perfect risotto. Known as the mantecare, rigorous stirring of the butter and cheese provide a gloriously homogeneous mass of stock, rice, butter and cheese, whilst allowing the rice to release its ‘bonding’ starches)

Wine thoughts

In nearby Friuli, the French varietal Sauvignon Blanc has been welcomed with open arms, and has become one of Italy’s most notable white wines. Unlike the somewhat racy styles of the Loire valley, Italy’s Sauvignons, in the DOC’s of Collio, Collio Orientali and Alto Adige, offer stylish whites with delightfully floral aromas cut by a soft refreshing acidity and vibrant citrus notes.