Origins of rice and its appearance in Italy
The exact origin of rice has not been established yet, however there’s no doubt that it first appeared in East Asia, India, China and Vietnam. Some artifacts appertaining to the VI millennium b.c. demonstrate the coexistence of different kinds of rice both wild and cultivated in the Yangzi Jiang river valley in China. Similar discoveries were also found in South-East Asia.
Rice was and still is a staple food for a large part of the world’s population in the East. Over the centuries its cultivation has outlined the way of life and the way of thinking for these populations.
There are many legends that consider rice as a gift from a supernatural force and all of them attribute various meanings to this cereal like happiness, good health, fecundity and many more.
The cultivation of rice started to spread to the West Asia during the Persian empire and with the invasion of India by Alexander the Great thus the Greeks came to know rice too. Strangely the Greeks didn’t contribute to its diffusion even if they introduced it in their own cuisine. It was always considered a spice. It was extremely expensive, used with parsimony and in particular cases utilized as a medicament.
The situation didn’t change at all during the Middle Ages. It’s incredible to find out that the rice, already in Southern Italy for centuries was brought to the North of Italy not by the Italians but rather by the Arabs through Spain. Arabs in fact favored the cultivation of rice between the IV b.C. and the X a.D century in Egypt on the Oriental side of Africa down to Madagascar Island, the Iberian peninsula and finally, around the 14th century, it made its way to Northern Italy. Initially the rice was cultivated in the area surrounding Milan eventually spreading into other regions of the North like Piedmont and Veneto.
The most cultivated varieties in Italy are: Arborio, Vialone Nano, Carnaroli, Roma, Baldo, Lido, Cripto, Alpe, Loto, Europa, Padano, Sant’Andrea, Balilla and Ribe.
Rice is cultivated close to Verona most famously around the town of Isola della Scala, which is also home to a Rice Fair every year. The typical variety cultivated here is Vialone Nano. For us it’s the rice of excellence for making risotto, but it needs more attention than arborio or carnaroli. It takes a little bit of practice to find the right balance between the liquids you add and the cooking time, otherwise you risk overcooking it before you realize it, or you end up with a soupy risotto.