The Wonderful Journey of Italian Rice

Gran Canal Cavour Building (1846) Source; riceandwine.com

Gran Canal Cavour Building (1846) Source; riceandwine.com

From the Roman Empire to the Renaissance period, rice has held an important significance in Italy. Today, Italy is Europe’s largest producer of rice and is cultivated mainly around the Po Basin (Lombardy, Venetia, Romagna and Piedmont). Other countries that produce rice are Spain, Portugal, Greece and France as well as Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.

However, if the original wild rice crop Oryza rufipogon existed a good 10,000-14,000 years ago in China, just how did it make its way to Italy and transform into the shape, size and texture it holds today.

The domestication of rice from the original wild variety into Oryiza Sativa began around 8,000 years ago. From this original rice crop variety, two main rice species are derived. Indica is one sub species that is found in South, South East Asia and South China tropical and sub-tropical climates. Japonica, the other sub species is grown in East Asia, Northern China and Southern Europe, thriving in more temperate climates.

Arborio Rice Source; The Essential Ingredient.com

Arborio Rice Source; The Essential Ingredient.com

Rice took a journey from China to South and South East Asia, supposedly spreading thanks to Buddhist Monks who carried rice with them on their travels. From Western Asia to Europe, Alexander the Great and his conquests helped move rice to Greece around the 4th Century – most probably after visiting India. Other routes rice took to exist in Europe was via the Moors in Spain and the Arabs in Sicily.

The first solid documentation of rice existing in Italy is dated the second half of the 15th Century due to the Spaniards with evidence of successful rice cultivation in Italy’s Tuscany region around the 1460’s. This is not to say that the Sicilians weren’t cultivating rice from the 9th Century or the Venetians had not brought in the grain prior to this.

Rice in some parts of Europe was introduced as a spice and the Romans valued it more as a medicine as opposed to a foodstuff. Fungal diseases of rice threatened the current strains in Italy so new types were imported from China, Japan and Italy. In the 1870’s rice types in Italy were Ostiglia, Bertone, Novarese, Francone, and Giapponese, however more species were cultivated in the 1920’s. These were Balilla, Allorio, Pierrot, and Maratelli derived from Chinese and American origins.

The classic Risotto alla Milanese. Source; taste.com.au

The classic Risotto alla Milanese. Source; taste.com.au

Today, the rice cultivated in Italy is derived from the Japonica sub species that is a medium to short grain variety with a great talent for absorbing liquid and absorbing starch. The Indica sub species is also becoming prevalent in Italy as of the the late 1990’s. Italian fine rice is produced in Northern Italy – in particular the Vercelli region. Types of Italian rice now cultivated are Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, Baldo, Roma, Sant’ Andrea and Nebbione. Most of these rice varieties are geared to make risotto and vary slightly in starch release, liquid absorbancy and grain length. The most readily available rice internationally for making risotto is Arborio, however Carnaroli rice a slightly more premium rice has less of a chance of being overcooked and holds it’s shape well.

From Risotto Alla Milanese (a classic saffron scented dish), to arancini (deep fried rice balls with ragu), Italian rice is such a wonderfully celebrated ingredient with endless possibilities and variations for both sweet and savoury dishes.