The city of Venice, situated on a lagoon of the Adriatic and built on a series of islands that are separated by canals and linked by bridges, was a powerful republic in the Middle Ages and controlled maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean from the 13th to the 16th centuries.
At that time, Venice already already had a reputation for its garden peas. The first crop of the season, the smallest and sweetest ones, were always despatched to the doge, the chief authority of the republic.
He, or rather the head of his kitchen, used the peas for risi e bisi, or rice and peas in the Venetian dialect. This dish was a showcase for the area’s crop of piselli, the Italian word for fresh peas. Risi a bisi is a simple rustic dish of the people that is held in extremely high esteem. That is why the smallest and sweetest peas were sent to the doge. It was one of the few dishes of the people he ate during the year.
Venice is no longer a republic, there are no doges ruling the area and in 1866 Venice was incorporated into a united Italy. But risi e bisi is still there, especially on April 25 (Sunday) when it is the star dish in households all over the city as Venetians celebrate the day of St Mark, the patron of Venice.
Risi e bisi is somewhat similar to risotto, in which the new crop of garden peas are very much in the spotlight: in recipes with 400 grs of rice for 4-6 people, there will be up to 800 grs of shelled garden peas. And the pods are used to make stock for the risi e bisi.
Venetians use vialone rice but as I have never seen it on sale in Palma, we would have to make do with one of the other risotto rices we can buy here: arborio or carnaroli. These days arborio is available at most of the bigger supermarkets.
Risi a bisi recipe
For 400 grs of arborio rice and at least 700 grs of shelled peas, you would also need 100 grs of diced Iberian cured ham, a medium-sized onion, 100 grs saltless butter, 2 tbsps finely minced parsley, 1.5 litres of chicken stock or stock made with the pea shells (with no added salt), and 100 grs of parmesan or grana padano grated cheese. No salt, because the ham will be salty enough.
In a suitable saucepan sauté the diced ham and the finely chopped onion in about 50 grs of butter and cook over a very low heat for 10 minutes or until the onions take on a pearly look.
Add the peas, a tablespoon of chopped parsley and 400 mls of stock and simmer until the peas start to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the rest of the butter and the rice with another 250 mls of boiling stock. Stir with a wooden fork, gently and carefully, so that you don’t burst the peas.
As the rice absorbs the stock, keep adding more until the rice is al dente. A risi e bisi should end up with more liquid than a risotto, but it shouldn’t be soupy as it is eaten with a fork, not a spoon. The big difference between a risotto and a risi e bisi is in the cooking method.
The three specialist risotto rice grains have a thick coating of starch and as the rice cooks this starch rubs off and produces a liquid with a milky look, which is called ‘lechoso’ in Spanish and ‘lattiginoso’ in Italian. When making a risotto the stock is added in smallish amounts and the rice is stirred frequently to facilitate the production of the milky effect. But in the cooking of a risi e bisi the stirring is kept to a minimum to ensure the peas don’t get reduced to a mush.
I have never seen risi e bisi on the menu of any Italian restaurant in Palma — and not even in London. But I asked Michele Caporale of La Bottega in Calle Fábrica (Tel:971-454892) to make me one, and he agreed — “Sera la mia versione,” he added.
Michele’s version is almost identical to the Venetian one except that he used diced Iberian cured ham instead of ‘tocino magro’ (breast of pork) and arborio instead of vialone rice.
And as Mallorca’s ‘habas frescas’ (fresh broad beans) are also in season, he added a good handful of those. He also did his risi e bisi in a paella pan and this gave it a more of a succulent risotto finish. The Iberian cured ham produced a scrummy taste you cannot get from ‘tocino magro’.
Michele will be offering the risi e bisi until the beginning of May at €14 per person. But it will have to be ordered 24 hours in advance to ensure that the garden peas are as fresh as possible. Peas have been with us for a long time and probably originated in western Asia. It is one of our oldest vegetables: seeds dating back to 9750BC have been found on the Thai-Burmese border as well as in Stone Age settlements in Switzerland.
During the Middle Ages in England they were used as a meat substitute during Lent, as dried peas contain as much protein a meat. Until the 17th century, the English made a coarse bread out of dried peas, rye and barley — ideal nowadays for those who want a high fibre diet.
It’s not surprising that the peas from the Venice area and Rome are rated so highly: today’s petits pois were developed by late Renaissance gardeners in Italy. Elizabeth David, in her Italian Food (published in 1954 and still the finest book on Italian cooking I have ever come across) said the petits pois grown in the outskirts of Rome were the best she had ever tasted.
The piselli, as the Italian call their petits pois, much later arrived in Paris and eventually became the rage of the court of Louis XIV, who was known as the Sun King and reigned from 1643 to 1715. They were at first more highly prized than truffles and ladies who had dined with Louis — which meant they had eaten some of the best food in Europe — would have a large portion of petits pois before retiring to bed.
A favourite way of eating them in those days was to bite the peas from their cooked pods after they had been dipped in a rich sauce. An easier, simpler and even more delicious way of doing this little dish is to use melted butter.
Cook the peas in their pods until just tender, about 15 minutes depending on the size and thickness of the pods. To eat them, hold the stem firmly with your fingers and drag the pod through the melted butter, put it into your mouth, then pull it out slowly with the teeth almost closed.
The peas get squeezed into the mouth and the butter oozes all over the tongue. The effect is quite sybaritic. It’s also a very sexy way of eating peas and ideal for a couple who don’t know each other very well…it’s a nice way of breaking the ice.
When cooking peas, never boil them in a big pan of water: vitamins and trace elements are lost and a good deal of the flavour also goes into the water. It’s best to use as little water as possible. Put the shelled peas into a suitable heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid and butter and enough water to come half way up the peas. Cook at a rolling simmer, giving the saucepan a good shake every minute or so. When they are tender, but not oversoft, serve them very hot with extra butter, salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper.
And if they are especially young and sweet, do as the French do and have them on their own as a starter. Peas cooked this way should always be served as soon as possible as they tend to lose flavour and become dryish and tough if kept warm for any length of time.
Peas have an affinity with carrots and they make a colourful and tasty duo. Spanish cooks love to pair peas and artichokes and you keep coming across them in vegetable and meat stews.
Spanish cooks and housewives like to add small amounts of peas to fish, poultry and other meat dishes and they are an obligatory ingredient in many rice dishes: every mixd paella I’ve ever had contained a handful of peas.
You will seldom see a Mallorcan housewife buying a kilo of peas in the pod. She hardly ever uses that amount for a single dish and prefers to buy only what she needs for the dish she is making because she always wants them to be as fresh as possible.
A dish we used to see in restaurants all over the island was ‘guisantes con jamón’, or peas with jamón serrano. I can’t remember the last time I saw it but I sometimes come across its cousin, green beans with cured ham. But guisantes con jamón is still a popular dish on the mainland. The making of this dish is extremely easy and needs no special skills, although small sweet peas of the best quality are essential.
Peas with jamón serrano recipe
Chop three shallots as finely as possible and sauté until soft over a low heat in a flattish greixonera. For four people add 600 grs of shelled peas and 150 grs of Iberian cured ham chopped into small pieces and enough water to cover the peas. Don’t add any salt as the ham will provide enough.
Cover and simmer until the peas are tender. Drain off any excess liquid, drizzle with virgen extra olive oil and serve immediately. In some places, such as Aragón, the shallots are sautéed in lard, butter is preferred in Cantabria and olive oil is used elsewhere.
A dish of guisantes con jamón, is an elegant little starter, and care should be taken to get it right. For instance, you wouldn’t want to find large pieces of onion in this dish, which is why you should use shallots, which are easily diced small.
When I was young, a popular snack in Scotland (and perhaps elsewhere in Britain) was a bowl of cooked dried peas into which one stirred vinegar. If that’s a taste you like then you’ll go for this Navarra speciality called guisantes al estilo navarro.
Peas Navarro style
You will need: 600 grs shelled peas, 4 hard-boiled eggs, small glass of vino rancio, black pepper, 4 tbsps white wine vinegar, virgen extra olive oil and salt to taste. Vino rancio is rancid wine which frequently appears in Spanish and Catalán dishes. It is always available at El Corte Inglés and some other supermarkets also stock it.
Cook the shelled peas in a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid as described above. Slice the hard-boiled eggs and arrange them on the bottom of a serving dish. Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and add the cooked and drained peas.
Pour in a small a glass of vino rancio and cook over a medium heat until it evaporates. Layer the peas over the sliced eggs and moisten the surface with vinaigrette made with virgen extra olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Serve hot.
The garden pea was the first food to be canned and, many years later, the first to be commercially frozen — in both cases most successfully. I was about eight when I first tasted canned French and Belgian petits pois and I still think they are absolutely delicious. I also have no qualms about using the best frozen petits pois.
But I always buy peas in the pod during the April to September season. It is so much more enjoyable to work with them — just as it is so much more satisfying to grate parmesan cheese over a risi e bisi than to sprinkle it on from a packet.
Some stallholders at the Mercat d’Olivar and the Santa Catalina markets think they’re doing housewives a time-saving favour by selling shelled fresh peas. Don’t ever buy them. As soon as a pea is taken from its shell, the natural process that turns it into a legume gets underway — and starts to harden it before putrefaction can set in.
So by the time we buy these shelled peas they are no longer truly fresh and should be avoided. It follows that we should never shell peas at home until the moment we are ready to start cooking them. Always remember: fresh peas start to harden aa soon as they are shelled.
Fresh peas have a high vitamin content and are especially rich in C and A. They also have plenty of iron and potassium and contain 7.5 grs of protein per 100 grs. They are not the best vegetable if you are watching your weight as they contain 80 calories per 100 grs…plus all that butter. And they are high in uric acid, so don’t overindulge if you are prone to getting attacks of gout.