Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
October 20, 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 rice I speak of is Asiatic rice (Oryza sativa L.) and not African rice (Oryza glaberrima Steud.), which has been cultivated in West Africa for several millennia. 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. I suspect, however, that it was grown even earlier. Rice may very well have been grown earlier in northern Italy since we do have references to its cultivation in thirteenth-century Roussillon, to the west Rice is called for in the recipe for blancmange in the anonymous Tuscan’s cookery work from the late fourteenth or early fifteenth centuries and this very well may have been home-grown rice and not imported. 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 rice 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. The claim that the Byzantines were growing rice before the arrival of the Arabs is based upon the very reputable lexicographer Joan Corominas who notes that rice was grown in the southeast of the Iberian peninsula in the seventh century when the area was under Byzantine rule. Unfortunately, he does not provide any sources for the claim. 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 Provençal 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).