Unique Heirloom Beans: The Italian Dwarf Cowpea

For the connoisseur of heirloom beans, "Fagiolino Dolico Di Veneto" cowpeas are an easy to grow, delicious variety from northern Italy.

| February/March 2009

  • kitchen cowpeas 1
    "Fagiolino Dolico Di Veneto" dwarf cowpeas, an heirloom bean from northern Italy, are edible in the pod or dried.
  • Cowpeas in the Garden
    'Fagiolino Dolico' grows fast, making it ideal for both warm and cool climates.
  • Cowpeas2
    Venetian Style Rice and Cowpeas recipe, known as risi e bisi in the Veneto (the region of northern Italy that includes Venice)
  • catfish2
    You can use catfish, which is widely available, instead of the traditional eel to make Venetian fish stock. Use your fish stock in our wonderful recipe for Venetian Style Rice and Cowpeas (risi e bisi).

  • kitchen cowpeas 1
  • Cowpeas in the Garden
  • Cowpeas2
  • catfish2

If you're looking for heirloom beans, dwarf cowpeas are a delicious, prolific, easy to grow entry from northern Italy that  bring a lot more to the table than your typical Southern black-eyed pea. The flavor is somewhat earthy like mushrooms, but with a buttery texture. In the Veneto (the region in northeastern Italy that contains Venice), it is often cooked with mushrooms, or served as a side dish with eel, a local favorite. "Fagiolino Dolico di Veneto" (loosely translated as “dwarf cowpea from the Veneto”) comes to us with a rich history, though no one knows exactly how long it has been cultivated.

Dwarf cowpeas came to Italy with the arborio rice that is often served with it. The rice has been grown in the Po River Valley in northern Italy since the 15th century, and evidently came from the East, most likely Cyprus, where the Venetians had a long-established trading presence. Cowpeas claim sub-Saharan Africa as their genetic origin, but they were cultivated for thousands of years by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. These were the “beans” that the Greeks ate on New Year’s Day to invite good luck.

Rice with young spring peas was a holdover of the ceremonial porridges served at the beginning of high feasts in the Middle Ages, except that this much-imitated Venetian culinary classic (now called risi e bisi) should be made with a special baby pea from Lumignano which is unavailable in this country. The recipe below is a version made with arborio rice and baby cowpeas, the fagiolini dolichi of the Veneto. Note that Venetians, in their own dialect of Italian, do not refer to them as fagiolini (plural) but rather fasolin’dolichi often dropping the final “i” and running the two words together. You will certainly find it written that way on country menus, and if you shop for these cowpeas in a Venetian farm market, you would need to know this.

‘Fagiolino Dolico di Veneto’ probably shares some botanical kinship to the ‘Fagiolino Dolico Nano dall’Occhio’ of Tuscany. These dwarf varieties of cowpea, with miniaturized pods and peas, were well-established by the 1600s, and were bred and re-bred for cultivation in small gardens.

In the United States, we have similar varieties called “rice” cowpeas, generally white or red in color. However, in this country Southern cowpeas are generally treated as a field crop because of their rampant vines and sprawling habits. The Venetian cowpea is different. Its neat, bushlike growth makes it an ideal small garden crop, and its production of pods is prolific, which is even better for the cook because all parts of this plant are edible: the young shoots, the green pods (which can be harvested like string beans), the young peas, and the ripe seeds (which can be cooked like any common cowpea). They also grow fast, which is a boon to northern gardeners because many types of cowpeas require a long, hot summer.

I generally have good luck with cowpeas even in Pennsylvania because I start them indoors in flats, transfer the seedlings to small 4-inch pots, and then set them out when I plant tomatoes (which for me is mid-April). By the end of June, the cowpeas are flourishing, and by the end of July, there’s already a good crop of young pods. The plants will keep producing right up until frost (for me, early to mid-November). With this time frame in mind, you can easily grow them in Zone 6 (coldest annual temperatures down to 10 below zero), and with the help of a greenhouse or some other means of starting the plants indoors, push your luck in the warmer areas of Zone 5 (down to 15 below zero). This cowpea can be grown throughout much of the Midwest.

6/4/2009 6:52:03 PM

I would like a source for purchasing Venetian Cowpea seeds for planting. I've checked a couple of seed catalogs and haven't found them as of yet.

4/7/2009 9:10:37 AM

where can i find the italian cow pea seeds for sale?

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