History of rice in Italy
Food historians generally agree that rice came to Europe by way of India. At first, rice was not used as an ingredient in cooking. It was prized for its medicinal value and known as a thickening agent.
The Romans knew rice only as an extremely expensive commodity imported in small quantities from India for medicinal purposes
"Rice pudding is the descendant of earlier rice pottages, which date back to the time of the Romans, who however used such a dish only as a medicine to settle upset stomaches. There were medieval rice pottages made of rice boiled until soft, then mixed with almond milk or cow's milk, or both, sweetened, and sometimes coloured. Rice was an expensive import, and these were luxury Lenten dishes for the rich. Recipes for baked rice puddings began to appear in the early 17th century. Often they were rather complicated...Nutmeg survives in modern recipes. It is now unusual to add eggs or fat, and rice pudding has tended to become a severely plain nursery dish. Nevertheless, it has its devotees."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 665)
It is difficult to say just when rice was grown first in Italy, but it was probably during the late Middle Ages. The earliest documentation of rice cultivation dates to 1475, where its cultivation in Lombard plain was promoted by Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan. He claimed that from the one sack of rice he sent as a gift to the Duke of Ferrara 12 sacks could be harvested, if properly cultivated. This impressive yield led to rice being quickly diffused throughout the region during the Italian Renaissance.
The early crops must have been impressive enough for farmers since rice quickly became a staple in the Po valley. Over time rice growing spread to every corner of Italy, but never took on the prominence it does in Lombardy and Piedmonte where the fertile swampy plains of the Po river valley provide suitable growing conditions
Mid-19th century - Breeding
Until the mid-19th century only that one variety of rice called "Nostrale" was grown. In 1839 a Jesuit priest, Padre Calleri, returning from the Phillipines imported 43 different rice varieties, and it was from this stock that Italians began to experiment with the varieties that could best be adapted for use in Northern Italy’s temperate climate.
1853-1866 - Cavour - channel system
The most spectacular period of progress of the Italian rice cultivation begins in the middle of last century, when led by Cavour, Vercelli farmers build in 1853 one of the most efficient and, for the time, large irrigation systems. Without well-distributed water which flooded the fields to protect crops from extreme temperature changes between day and night the crop could not come to fruition. The complex infrastructure is upgraded in 1866 with the construction of the Canal Cavour allowing the "transfer" of water from the rivers Po, Dora Baltea, Sesia, Ticino and Lake Maggiore in an area of approximately 400,000 hectares.
Work for the building of the "Gran Canale Cavour"
The route of Canale Cavour
'By Fertilizing the Soil, One Cultivates Plenty', poster, Italian, c 1900. 'Concimando si Coltiva L'Abbondanza'. Poster produced for Magni & Co, an Italian agricultural supply company.
Location: Science Museum, London, Great Britain
The different stages of cultivation (land preparation, planting and flooding, weeding, and rice harvest) over 180 days between March and October, also required a lot of manpower. Above all, the manual removal of weeds and harvest, until the fifties brought into paddy fields 260-280 thousand people in late spring and autumn. The practice of transplantation in order to exploit the soil with other crops, then abandoned, required highly skilled workers and in great numbers.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth-century social conditions and remuneration of rice-weeders, and laborers determined strong social conflicts that were resolved in 1906 with the first collective agreements based on the eight-hour workday. In the same year appeared the first machines to mechanize the various cultivation practices, and we have to wait until 1952 for the experimental introduction of chemical herbicides which will spread by 1957 and make a decisive impact in rice fields since the early sixties.
The Italian rice production depends, today, from the most advanced mechanical and chemical technologies. The one million two hundred thousand tons obtained from 200 000 hectares (90% concentrated in the triangle Novara, Vercelli, Pavia) are collected and dried completely by machine. Each hectare, which in 1939 required an average of 1,028 hours of work, currently committed to an average of less than 50 hours.
Italy is now the biggest producer of rice in Europe, and is most famous for rice cultivars such as Carnaroli selected to absorb liquid when cooked, and yet have both a firm bite and creaminess that makes the unique Italian dish Risotto so special.
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