Rice is a gramineous plant belonging to the Oryza genus originally coming from South-East Asia where it still forms the basis of human diet. Rice is grown over roughly 140,000 hectares in Italy, and after Spain, is European’s biggest producer (an average 5 quintals of unhusked rice per hectare). In Italy, rice consumption has always been much lower than wheat, but recen- tly consumers have been showing a growing preference for this cereal that lends itself so well to numerous delicious dishes.
Rice: history and legend
Rice first appeared on the earth at the end of the Ice-age, probably around 10,000 BC. In fact, when the glaciers withdrew towards the poles, the vegetation changed radically and for the first time, vast fields of wild wheat began to appear in the near East and wild rice began to grow in the swampy or monsoon areas or of India, China, and Thailand.
The transition from gathering to cultivation may have occurred over 2000 years later, however, the available historic documentation on rice is still rather vague.
In 1952, the Japanese, Matsuo, availing of genetics, attempted the first reconstruction of rice’s evolution, tracing its first appearance to over seven or eight thousand years ago in the region of Java.
Other theories, however, maintain that the origi- nal place was the lakes area in Cambodia. Even archaeology has shed some light on the matter: in fact, certain diggings have shown that as early as seven thousand years ago, rice was already being grown and eaten in China. Fossil remains found in the Yang Tze Valley prove that three or four thousand years ago rice paddies already existed in that region. Other finds in the Hastinapur caves of Uttar Pradesh province in India, show that around 1000 BC, those popula- tions ate rice.
The legends associated with rice are countless and basically associate it with abundance. In China, for example, it is said that a Good Spirit, touched by the endemic famine, pulled out his own teeth and planted them so that they might bear fruit. Once unhusked, the rice grains seemed endless, white and perfect, just like the teeth of that divinity. In India, the gift of rice is attributed to the god Shiva, who was asked by his beloved maiden for a “food that is neither sickening nor bloa- ting”, in exchange for her love. When the mai- den died, Shiva placed a small plant on her tomb, and from that plant, millions of white grains sprouted and spread all over the world. Even popular sayings handed down by word of mouth reveal the fundamental role of rice in the diet of Oriental populations. A Chinese proverb says: “Eat your rice, and Heaven will take care of the rest”; another Oriental saying sums up the economic and social role of rice: “One works and nine eat rice”.Taking up the thread of historic events, (from manuscripts dedicated to food and cultivation) around 550 BC Arabs, Syrians, Copts, Nubians, Ethiopians, Armenians, and Georgians grew rice. The Egyptians and Hebrews had not heard of rice, while the Romans merely dismissed it as an “aquatic plant”. Up to the early Middle Ages in Italy and France, rice was considered medici- nal and used unhusked to make infusions to alleviate stomach ache and other disorders, or as an ingredient for cakes.
The cereal was probably brought to Italy by the Crusaders, to Sicily by the Arabs, and to Naples by the Aragonese or by Venetian mer- chants who traded with the Middle and Far East. Or it may have been introduced by the Benedictine Monks who had begun reclaiming the swamp lands. In 1300, the “Book of Expense Accounts” of the Duke and Duchess of Savoy, gives a payment of 13 imperials per pound for “rice for cakes” and 8 imperials for honey. Therefore, rice must been a very expensive raw material used for preparing cakes. In 1340, an order by the Milan tax collectors applied to rice, defined it as a “spice coming from Asia, through Greece”, and therefore was subject to heavy customs duties. A document from 1371 placed rice among the “spices” and defined it as “Overseas Rice” or “Spanish Rice”.
The first rice cultivations in Italy date back to 1400, firstly in Lombardy, and subsequently in the regions of Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany and Emilia. Later, after epidemics, wars, famine, and plagues like the one lasting from 1348 to 1352, a constantly growing population had to be fed, and rice growing was finally encoura- ged.
In 1475, Gian Galeazzo Sforza (the Duke of Milan) offered a bag of rice seeds to the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara, assuring them that if planted properly, the seeds would turn into 12 bags of product. From 1550 on, there is eviden- ce of extensive rice cultivation in the area around Mantua, Bologna, Padua and in the Po delta, while in the Ferrara district, rice was lar- gely confined to the coastal strip.
By the mid-sixteenth century in Italy, 50,000 hectares were already being used for rice growing; harvests were protected by special measures; in 1567 rice became an exchange currency on the Antwerp market, on a level with valuable materials and weapons. In 1690 it rea- ched Carolina, following the corn route, but backwards.
For 400 years, from the fifteenth century until 1850, only one variety of rice was grown and available, namely the local variety. Today, many varieties are grown, and result from varietal selection; irrigation systems have become more efficient, while the invention of specific machi- nery has further improved the technology. Manual transplanting, elimination of pests, and cutting of the harvest, all permanently etched in the historic memory of Italians, have been com- pletely superseded for years now.
After reaching the West, firstly as a spice, then as essential food, rice is now an important part of the fine and good cuisine of a more dynamic.
Courtesy by Zafferano Magazine