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Did You Know: Food History - Mediterranean Riziculture and the Origin of Risotto?
Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
January 21, 2017
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Mangia Bene

    One of the unintentional end products of the clearing of the Lombardy plains for the establishment of rice fields in the fifteenth century was risotto. The motivation for the clearing and reclaiming of the plains was simply the demand of the growing towns for food. That demand was met not by rice growers but by budding capitalists who had the financial wherewithal to back the farmers in establishing these rice fields in the Po Valley. One of the earliest references I know of concerning rice in northern Italy is a letter of September 27, 1475 from Galeazzo Maria Sforza to the Duke of Ferrara concerning twelve sacks of rice. In the days of the Venetian Republic, la Serenissima, as the city-state was known by both its citizens and its enemies, would spare nothing to properly regale the ambassadors to St. Marks with all the pomp and splendor befitting such a noble position. The state dinner was a notable event, and the master chefs of the Doge would prepare an exquisite minestra di riso that centuries later evolved into the risottos we know today. I suspect, however, that rice was grown even earlier than the late fifteenth century in northern Italy. In both the Po Valley and in Valencia in Spain rice occasionally replaced bread as a staple. It is a typical part of the story that profit margins were kept high as riziculture in Lombardy meant the near enslavement of workers who were not organized, including children who were exposed to barbarous cruelties according to a Lombard ordinance of 1590 seeking to stop this practice.

    Rice was not new to the Mediterranean. It was known in Roman times, but only medicinally, and was not grown in a regular or widespread way in the Mediterranean until the rise of Islam. Riziculture had its origins in India, Assam, Burma, Thailand, or China, and the plant slowly made its way west both agriculturally and culinarily. Once there was enough water for irrigation, rice was grown with more frequency in the Islamic world, although its importance never reached that of wheat. In some areas, though, such as desert oases, swamps, and river valleys that flooded, rice became a staple food. In the last half of the tenth century rice was grown near Baisan in Palestine, in the Fayyum of Egypt, and lower Mesopotamia, where it was the most popular food. The writer Ibn Qutaiba (828-889) cites the famous philologist al-Asma’i who said, “White rice with melted butter and white sugar is not of this world,” meaning that it is so delicious, it is eaten in paradise. Medieval Arabic cookbooks have many rice recipes and the great twelfth century Muslim agronomist Ibn al-‘Awwam says the best way to eat rice is with butter, oil, fat, and sweet and rich milk, such as ewe’s milk. In medieval Aleppo, rice was cooked in fig juice. Even though there are many recipes for rice in the medieval Arab world, rice was still an exotic and expensive food.

 (Photo: Riziculture in the delta of the Ebre river in Spain,

 The Arabs had established riziculture very early on in Spain and were exporting it from Sicily by the tenth century. Traders could find rice in Levantine ports and fourteenth century Majorcan rice was sold at fairs in Champagne. In Venice, a deliberation of the Council of Ten in July 7, 1533, exempts rice from an excise tax because it takes the place of vegetables. The Provencal writer Quiqueran de Beaujeu wrote in 1551 of riziculture in Provence. One can’t help but notice that rice was being eaten in Europe before the development of riziculture on the Lombardian plains. The fourteenth-century cookery manuscript known as the Libro per cuoco by an anonymous Venetian gives a recipe, rixo in bona manera--that is, a kind of porridge of rice cooked in almond milk with sugar. In Italy, a person who laughed easily was said to have eaten rice soup, a play on words: che aveva mangiato la minestra di riso (he had eaten laughter/rice soup).