From Rice to Risotto

Perhaps you remember the film “Riso Amaro” (Bitter rice) – 1949, one of the landmark films of the postwar Italian neorealist movement. It starred Silvana Mangano acting as one the hundreds of women doing hard labour, weeding in the paddy barefoot and bent, in the Po Valley rice fields. For this reason the Italian title is a pun, since the word riso means both rice and laughter, and these women had bitter laughter, to bear their bitter work.

During the Roman empire rice was “bitter” since it was extremely expensive, coming to Europe from India and used only for medical purposes to settle upset stomachs. But at the same time it was “sweet”, since they boiled the rice in almond and goat’s milk, producing a sort of pottage sweetened with honey.

Things changed in the fifteenth century, when the demand for food in growing towns was met by some capitalists who started to back farmers in establishing the Asiatic rice Oryza sativa in the Lombard fields. A precious statement was written in a letter dated 27 September 1475, by the Duke of Milan Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who on donating rice to the Duke of Ferrara, claimed that from the one sack of rice properly cultivated he could have a twelve sack harvest. This impressive yield led to rice quickly becoming widespread during the Italian Renaissance. In fact, the typical Italian recipe Risotto alla Milanese apparently was cooked and served for the first time in September 1574.

According to a manuscript in the Trivulziana library, the Flemish master Valerio of Flanders was working on the stained glass windows of Milan’s Cathedral, assisted by a worker nicknamed Zafferano (saffron) since he used to add a bit of saffron in any shade of yellow to make it more vivid.

As a joke one day the master told him that he would even end up putting the yellow in his food… and Zafferano took him at his word; plotting with the cook in charge of the banquet for Valerio’s daughter, they added some saffron to the rice course, obtaining great success thanks to the unusual taste and a joyful golden yellow color.

But in those days the rice was really “bitter” for the adults and children who worked in the fields as, according to a Lombard ordinance in 1590 seeking to stop cruelty, they were practically enslaved to keep up with the demand caused by the rapid diffusion of the recipe.

Then in 1839 it happened that a Jesuit priest named Calleri illegally exported 43 different rice varieties from the Phillipines, and the Italians used this stock in various experiments to sort out a new variety which would best adapt to the Northern Italian climate. This was the starting point of a real change!
In 1853 important progress was made by count Camillo Benso di Cavour who created an extremely large and efficient irrigation system by constructing the Canal Cavour which brought water to the Vercelli area from the rivers Po, Dora Baltea, Sesia, Ticino and Lake Maggiore, and covered a Piedmont area of approximately 400,000 hectares!

In those times, land preparation, planting and flooding, weeding and harvesting required over 180 working days from March to October, and manpower of between 260 and 280 thousand people. Their conditions and remuneration caused strong social conflicts, resolved in 1906 with the first collective act based on the eight-hour workday. In the same year the first machines appeared to solve various cultivation practices, and from 1952 to 1957 there was the introduction of chemical herbicides.

Italy is now the biggest producer of rice in Europe, and is most famous for its Carnaroli rice, selected to absorb liquid when cooked, and yet have both a firm bite and creaminess that makes the unique Italian dish risotto so special.

ricettaUntil the 6 of October in Milan there will be a festa del risotto (rice festival), called “Milanese è il Risotto” organized by “Riso e Rane” a rural enclosure with high biodiversity, within the South Milan Agricultural Park which extends in part inside the Ticino Valley and Lombardy Park. Here they produce the Carnaroli variety considered the “world king” of rice for risotto and even more elaborate preparations. Its starch is particularly rich in amylose (24% of dry matter) which makes the grains consistent, and allows it to remain firm while absorbing dressings and seasoning excellently.

Since Carnaroli is difficult to cultivate, it may often be replaced by varieties similar and less problematic, while the “Riso e Rane” rural district sells its production with a “DNA Tested” certification and complete traceability of their Carnaroli seeds.

Moreover they produce a wholegrain rice, particularly nutritious and highly digestible, obtained by a simpler and less invasive method than that used for white rice. The maintenance of the external part of the grain and the germ, does mean longer cooking time – simply solved by a few hours of soaking in water- which, however, makes wholegrain rice an optimal food for a healthy and balanced diet, since it is rich in vitamins B1, B3, B6, mineral salts, essential amino acids and fibre, and has a high content in phosphorus, selenium, manganese and iron.

To find out about the calendar of events, taste some great risotto and buy some rice produced with DNA certification, see What’s on from 1 to 6 October.

Buon appetito!

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