Earth First

Rice | The Italian Way

I don’t love risotto. This has always been, for my Italian family, one of my most intriguing quirks. This oddity soon became a source of indignation when my grandma found out that despite my distaste for risotto, I still loved sticky sushi rice and basmati rice in a soupy curry. You see, Italians care about their rice. But what is so special about the Italian way of growing and cooking it?

The secret grains behind a good risotto

‘Risotto’ is not just a recipe. It’s part of Italy’s national heritage, and a significant product in the Italian economy. Italy produces around 1.3 million tonnes of rice each year, 53% of which are exported to other European countries.1

There is, however, one very special grain that Italians don’t export much, but rather keep for themselves: the so-called “Lungo A” (“Long A”) grain. This broad category includes Carnaroli, Arborio, Baldo, S. Andrea, and Volano. These are the most suitable kinds of rice to cook the perfect risotto. It is no secret that Italians religiously adhere to their culinary rules–so if you dare to cook risotto with Basmati rice in front of an Italian, be prepared to be scolded about your outrageously inaccurate cooking skills.

There is a good reason to consider Long A, and in particular Carnaroli, as the caviar of risotto rice: it all boils down to starch. In order to obtain the creamy texture of risotto, you need a grain that will be high in amylopectin (starch) content. Cooking risotto means continuously stirring the rice in the pot, and the reason for this tedious practice is that the stirring rubs starch off the surface of rice. This dissolution of starch thickens the cooking liquid, allowing it to achieve the hallmark texture of the notorious dish.2

How Italian rice is grown

Italian rice fields are located in a large plain, Pianura Padana, equidistant from the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. In the summer, when water melts from the Alps glaciers, covering the fields, these expanses almost look like an immense mirror. The journey from the field to the table is a short one.

“Rice is a product that comes from the field to the table after only a cleaning operation,” explains Roberto Magnaghi, director general of the Ente Risi, the Italian national institution for rice.  Rice farmers buy seeds, sow them, grow them, and then sell them to the rice mill that will transform them.

During transformation, the external shell (or “husk”) covering of the grain is rubbed off—since it contains inedible silicon—resulting in wholegrain rice. Further scratching the surface of the rice yields white rice. If, after the removal of the husk, the grain is instead soaked and then quickly dried, the result is parboiled rice. Taste-wise, parboiled rice absorbs less flavours from condiments—it is better used in salads or as a side. That’s also why Italians patronisingly relegate it to ‘canteen food’.

History Brief: Renaissance Rice

Some may be interested in why Italy grew to become the most prominent rice producer in Europe. The first answer is that it has been cultivating rice for a long time. Lombardy, Piedmont, and Veneto—the Italian regions that host most rice fields today—were already considerably developed in their cultivation of this grain by the end of the 15th century. By that time, several traders were already specialised in exporting rice to Switzerland.3 However, until the 1850s, the only variety grown in Italy was known as “Nostrale.” The modern cultivation of rice, with all of its different varieties, is owed to a Jesuit Priest named Calleri—a missionary who travelled to the Philippines and, upon returning to Italy in 1839, illegally brought back 43 different varieties of rice seeds. This event, together with agrarian policies that led to the establishment of an efficient and extensive irrigation system, marked the beginning of modern Italian rice production.4

Breaking traditions with new technologies

In the last century, Italian rice farmers have honed their techniques to increase production and save resources. For example, until the 1960s, about 50% of rice crops were transplanted—meaning that rice seeds were activated in a nursery, and once the plants reached a suitable age for uprooting, they were removed and planted in the fields.5

This technique is now completely abandoned in Italy: farmers plant directly in the field, saving time and labour; transplantation is only performed as corrective work in small portions of land, and some farmers have been experimenting with mechanical transplant in their crops. In countries like China, however, this technique is still the most adopted.6

However, the introduction of new technologies has allowed Italian farmers to maintain the health of each plant regardless of weather, pests, and soil quality, making this tedious practice obsolete. Ente Risi is leading the way in the implementation of precision technology to ensure farmers apply the exact dose of fertiliser to each small plot of land.

We can imagine ‘precision agriculture’ as the plants’ version of ‘precision medicine’.  Drones measure the ‘vigour’ of each plant (meaning the health of the plant; how well the plant is doing) and farmers apply fertilisers accordingly. Thanks to precision agriculture, farmers will be increasingly able to both protect the environment and maximise their production.

Saving water or saving the planet?

The second answer to why Italy is such an important rice producer in Europe has to do with its geography. Irrigation is easy in the rice growing regions of Italy. The large plains located between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea allow for an effective system of irrigation by submersion. When the summer period starts, water melts from the Alps’ glaciers, reaching the Pianura Padana. The water is stocked there for a few months, from April to September, thanks to artificially constructed embankments. Once the rice fields have been flooded and rice has grown, the water is then released and returns to the sea.

The submersion technique, however, is not all sunshine and rainbows. It is also known to be a major contributor to climate change, and recent research suggests it is a far bigger problem than we previously thought.7 It’s a double-edged sword: submersion lowers water use, but it boosts greenhouse gases. Marco Romani, Director of the Research Centre at Ente Risi, explained that through submersion, rice farmers can annually save about 4,000-4,500 m3 of water per hectare that would otherwise be lost to the atmosphere. However, submersion also releases (in the short term) the same amount of carbon as 1,200 coal power plants. Even though flooding fields intermittently could help cut the release of methane, it also produces up to 45 times more dinitrogen monoxide.

Italy is yet to adopt a solution to this pressing issue—even if I’m not risotto’s biggest fan, deep down I hope the country will find a way to save both the Earth and Carnaroli.

Which kind of rice do you use to cook risotto? Let us know in the comments below!

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