Home » How Italy grew to become Europe’s rice producer

How Italy grew to become Europe’s rice producer

by newsking24

(CNN) — It was the film that added intercourse attraction to the gritty neorealist movie interval and made a star out of actress Silvana Mangano.

“Riso Amaro” (“Bitter Rice”), featured girls sporting daring shorts with ripped stockings tramping by way of water, girl-on-girl mud-wrestling, and Mangano’s ample cleavage in all the things from tight t-shirts to a negligee.

The movie, a neorealist thriller-slash-tragedy, noticed a felony couple infiltrate the rice fields in Italy’s Piedmont area, and ticked off gun fights and a rice heist.

Trust the Italians to make farming attractive, you might say. But regardless of all of the cleavage photographs, “Bitter Rice” threw the highlight on a job that had been, till then, thankless.

Every summer time, from May to July, till the 1960s (and even 1970s in some locations) hundreds of working-class girls would make their strategy to the Po Valley in northern Italy. They have been there to work as “mondine” — discipline weeders, clearing house for the rice vegetation to develop.

It was backbreaking work.

“They would start very early and work till mid-afternoon, in this leaning-over position,” says Dr Flora Derounian, lecturer in fashionable languages on the University of Sussex, who makes a speciality of girls’s work and oral histories.

“They were knee-high in water, exposed to the sun, and there was a high prevalence of disease, including malaria. One senator who made a speech on their conditions [in 1953] likened them to one of Dante’s circles of hell.”

On being taught the method, Silvana Mangano (who, by the way, was the grandmother of US TV chef Giada de Laurentiis) is alleged to have exclaimed: “Like this, for eight hours? I wouldn’t do this work even for a million a day!”

But Derounian says there was much more to the mondine than feeding the nation. Largely left wing, they have been a few of the solely employees to efficiently protest in opposition to the Fascist authorities, and carried out essential work as a part of the anti-Nazi resistance throughout World War II.

“They did a lot of things like hiding partisans, and passing on messages and materials,” she says.

But they have been usually handed over throughout post-war efforts to acknowledge the partisans. And generally, that passing over got here from their very own households — even once they’d labored within the resistance collectively (males would do energetic fight and ladies would conceal fighters, present meals and go on messages).

“There was one case where the authorities came to give ‘tessere’ [cards of recognition for the war effort] to members of one family. The husband said, no, just one in the family is enough — I’ll have mine. The woman — a ‘mondina’ — never got her tessera,” says Derounian.

Scandal and starpower

Italy’s rice belt follows the River Po throughout the north of the nation, from Piedmont to Veneto.

G. GNEMMI/De Agostini Editorial/Getty Images

So how did a humble grain get to play middle stage in Italy’s anti-Fascist resistance? It’s thought that rice was first domesticated in China’s Yangtze River valley round 10,000 years in the past. Before that, locals had harvested wild rice for a pair extra thousand years.

The Romans imported it to make use of as a spice, and there are data that within the Middle Ages it was nonetheless getting used like that — floor, to thicken sauces and dishes similar to blancmange, says Diego Zancani, emeritus professor of medieval and fashionable languages at Oxford University and creator of “How We Fell in Love with Italian Food.”
Rice cultivation in Italy got here slightly later, he says, in all probability getting into from India. And though custom has Italy’s rice business beginning in Lombardy within the 15th century — in 1450, Francesco Sforza, the ruler of Milan, wrote a letter ordering straw hats product of “paglia di riso,” or rice straw — he says that there is proof that it was already being cultivated in Ferrara, now a part of Emilia Romagna.

Either approach, manufacturing revolved round Italy’s “rice belt” — the dank, marshy land across the Po river, operating west to east throughout Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Veneto within the north of Italy. The nation swiftly grew to become Europe’s largest producer of rice.

Nearly 600 years later, it nonetheless is.

Da Vinci and a thieving priest

Today, Italy's rice belt is mechanized, and worked by individual farmers.

Today, Italy’s rice belt is mechanized, and labored by particular person farmers.

Hermes Images/AGF/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Not that it occurred with out scandal. In 1839, a Jesuit priest, Padre Calleri, returned from missionary work within the Philippines carrying the seeds of 43 completely different rice sorts, which he’d stolen. He introduced them again to the Vercelli space in Piedmont, the place the Count of Cavour, Camillo Benso, enthusiastically promoted the brand new varieties, constructing a canal system to create what would grow to be Italy’s fashionable rice sector.

Benso went on to grow to be the primary Prime Minister of a newly unified Italy, however he wasn’t probably the most well-known title to be concerned with the rice commerce. Leonardo da Vinci was famously employed by the Sforza household to create Milan’s canal system in 1482, which might create a water route from Lake Como to the town.

Did he additionally work on irrigation for the household’s rice fields? It’s greater than attainable, says Zancani. “Chronologically Leonardo fits,” he says. “He went to Milan as an engineer, and Francesco Sforza had been interested in rice 30 years earlier.

“In his ‘domanda,’ or CV, he wrote that he was an knowledgeable in hydraulics and waterways, and he participated in an enormous improve in canals, which improved manufacturing within the Po Valley. So it is not a mistake to say there is a connection.”

The birth of risotto

"Minestra di riso" or rice soup, quickly became a popular dish.

“Minestra di riso” or rice soup, quickly became a popular dish.


The northern Italians took rice to their hearts, and it swiftly became an integral ingredient in regional cooking.

“From them on we have now early recipes of ‘minestra di riso’ — rice soup,” says Zancani.

Renaissance-era courts would gift sacks of rice to each other — there are records of the Sforza family of Milan and the Este of Ferrara indulging in rice-based diplomacy. Cristoforo di Messisbugo, the Renaissance celebrity chef and Lucrezia Borgia’s master of ceremonies, included rice dishes in his famous recipe book.

Not risotto, though.

“Risotto as we all know it was in all probability developed within the 19th century,” says Zancani.

People then immediately took to it. The dish has become synonymous with northern Italy, with all the rice belt regions knocking out their own variations. Veneto’s seafood twists get an honorable mention, but ultimately, the most famous of all has to be risotto alla milanese, where the rice is swirled in parmesan, saffron, wine, and little else. In the 1960s, novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda wrote a famous homage to the dish — part recipe, part love letter — in which he specified his preferences right down to the best shop in Milan to buy saffron from, and insisting on butter from Lodi.

But not even a creamy risotto alla milanese could help rice take off lower down Italy’s boot. Sicily has its rice balls, of course, and there is some cultivation in Sardinia, too. But Italy’s rice belt has remained firmly around the Po since the 1400s. Below Emilia Romagna, you’ll be hard pressed to find rice dishes on the menu. Further south, it’s all about pasta.

That special rice alchemy

Italy is still Europe's biggest rice producer.

Italy remains to be Europe’s largest rice producer.


Still, up within the north, the rice belt Italians are pushing the rice boundaries. At Ristorante Ponterosso, a restaurant in Monteveglio, Emilia Romagna, chef Massimo Ratti is known region-wide for his inventive dishes. Perhaps his most famous is Risotto Luigi XII: rice with lamb, clams, potatoes, pomegranate, orange, chicory, nutmeg and crushed olives. Like the multi-flavor dishes of the Renaissance court of nearby Ferrara, it shouldn’t work — but it does.

“Rice is a part of our tradition,” he says. “We’re the most effective producers in Europe as a result of we have now the most effective circumstances, however we additionally prefer it. The cooking of our ‘mamma’ and ‘nonna’ is all the time our reference level.”

It’s easy to cook rice badly, he says — and it’s easy to lose the taste of the rice. To keep it, he says you need to “toast” it, while raw, on a high heat, “till it turns into a bit darkish, nearly caramelized.”

Then, he says, you should add a couple of spoonfuls of broth, cool it on a marble surface, and then get going with the sauce. It sounds like alchemy — and he says it preserves the starch in the rice.

“After that I can do 5 – 6 risottos, as a result of I’ve already handled the starch. Gorgonzola and banana, duck and pinenuts, veggies with goats cheese, kiwi…”

His other famous risottos include melon with smoked pecorino, and risotto with pumpkin, chestnuts and pomegranate.

“People who like rice, like rice,” he says simply, adding that carnaroli is his top pick of rice variant for a good risotto.

The new risotto-friendly variants

Mondine in the rice fields of Piedmont, circa 1920-1950.

Mondine within the rice fields of Piedmont, circa 1920-1950.

American Stock Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

They certainly do like rice. In the past century, the Italians have worked hard on creating their ideal kinds of the grain. Ratti’s beloved carnaroli was “launched” in 1945 — a medium-grained cross between vialone and lencino, named after its inventor, Emiliano Carnaroli, former president of the Ente Nazionale Risi, or National Rice Organization (yes, Italy has a National Rice Organization).

The high-starch arborio and vialone nano (itself a cross of vialone and nano) are the other popular risotto rices, the starch making for a creamy final dish. Both originated in the Italian rice belt.

And as we pick up our packet of carnaroli in the supermarket, it’s worth remembering that the mondine — and their hard lives — are the reason we’re buying those Italian rice types today.

Some were local women; others were seasonal workers, usually from northern Italy, who came for the weeding months. They worked the rice fields until the 1960s, and even the 1970s, when pesticides and then mechanization came into force.

Local women lived at home, but seasonal workers were put up in huge dormitories. At Tenuta Colombara, in the Vercelli region of Piedmont, where risotto with frogs is a typical dish, the 1920s dormitory where up to 200 women slept has been turned into a museum dedicated to the life of the mondine.
“It was a tricky job however it was of elementary significance,” says Anna Rondalino, owner of the farm, which, today, produces one of Italy’s most chichi rices, Acquerello, said to be beloved of chefs including Massimo Bottura.

An aged carnaroli invented by her father, Piero, in 1991, it has a mammoth 20-step production process, which includes reattaching the nutrient-packed germ to the rice grain (making it as nutritious as wholegrain rice); using a specially delicate “helix” method to whiten the rice; and culminates in it being aged for anything from one to seven years.

Life in the fields

Rice fields in the province of Novara, Piedmont.

Rice fields within the province of Novara, Piedmont.

G. GNEMMI/De Agostini Editorial/Getty Images

The mondine at Tenuta Colombara ate “panissa” — rice with meat and beans — says Rondalino. They were paid in rice, too, says Flora Derounian (who’s not referring to Tenuta Colombara, but has studied the mondine in general). A scene in “Riso Amaro” shows the women being paid one scoop of rice for every day they worked. Female children would also work in the fields, and the women would have their babies brought to them to breastfeed at lunchtime.

Left-wing politics ruled the rice fields, perhaps because of the tough conditions. Many mondine were members of their local communist parties, and, Derounian says, “they have been all the time asking for higher circumstances, higher meals.” There are documented strikes under fascist and Nazi rule. “They have been one of many solely workforces to protest underneath fascism and achieve concessions,” says Derounian — including better pay, shorter working days and the right to bring food into the fields for their break times. And when they joined wider protests, the mondine would be put at the front, especially during the Nazi occupation, she says — “they have been much less more likely to be arrested.”

It didn’t always work. One woman was killed at a protest in 1949. Maria Margotti — a former member of the resistance — was 34 when she was shot, protesting for agricultural workers rights in Molinella, Emilia Romagna. Thirty other people were injured when police fired at the 6,000-strong crowd.

Conflict and community

The rice fields line the area around the River Po, known for its cypress trees.

The rice fields line the world across the River Po, identified for its cypress bushes.


It wasn’t all feminine solidarity, in fact. There was friction between the native girls and the “forestiere” or “foreigners”, who came from outside the area. If local women were striking for better pay, landowners would bring in outsiders to work. “It precipitated lots of issues,” says Derounian. The famous fight scene in “Riso Amaro,” in which the women wrestle in the muddy water, is more than about titillation, she says — they’re fighting over “scab” workers.

But, she says, when the mondine think about their old lives, it’s with affection. “There’s undoubtedly a rose-tinted reminiscence — they discuss a way of neighborhood, solidarity, participation within the resistance and communism. That has actually overtaken the reminiscence of how tough it was,” says Derounian.

They would sing as they worked, and even today, there are mondine choirs around northern Italy — some with former workers still in them, but others made up of relatives and local women, keeping their history alive.

It all stopped when pesticides and mechanization began. From the 1960s, the mondine began to be pushed out.

“It was a extremely turbulent course of, as a result of they have been freelancers. Farmers who had mechanized would put up indicators with a determine of a mondina crossed out,” says Derounian.

But they didn’t go down without a fight. “Sometimes they might reverse protest and go to work with out being invited.”

By that point, the mondine had gone from relative national obscurity, known only in the rice belt, to international stardom, thanks to “Riso Amaro.”

But while its hypersexualized camerawork and birth of a bombshell in the shape of Silvana Mangano galvanized a nation, the film was making a serious point about the working conditions of the mondine.

After all, this was a neorealist film — Italy’s postwar genre focusing on the living conditions of the poorest members of society — and director Giuseppe de Santis was a paid up member of the PCI, or Italian Communist Party. He’d also fought as a partisan against the Nazis in World War II

But they needed sex appeal to get the film funded. And, in the shape of Mangano, they got it.

Silvana Mangano with Vittorio Gassman in "Riso Amaro."

Silvana Mangano with Vittorio Gassman in “Riso Amaro.”

Lux Film/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

“There’s no different feminine workforce aside from prostitutes or fashions which have actually captured the creativeness within the postwar interval,” says Derounian.

“But I believe that is come at the price of them being extremely sexualized. In one [oral history] interview, one lady stated that after the movie they have been considered prostitutes, which wasn’t truthful.”

The mondine did take one inspiration from the film though — fashion. They swapped their long weeding skirts for the shorts worn by Silvana and her companions in the movie.

Derounian says that the film — and its mass market appeal — caused a “large debate within the Communist Party over whether or not it was a sellout.”

But ultimately, she said, the film “put rice on the map as a nationwide product, and it catapulted the mondine into all people’s minds.”

So subsequent time you are having fun with that creamy risotto, keep in mind its hyperlinks to the resistance, Da Vinci and, in fact, 10,000 years past, to China. But additionally consider the mondine, whose onerous labor made Italian rice — and dishes like risotto — go world wide.

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