History of rice
I got interested in how risotto landed in Italy and got to know a lot. Here’s a short version of what I found out.
At one time in the 15th century, there was a man called Galeazzo Maria Sforza, he was a duke of Milan, and he was pretty weird. Weird in a way of killing and torturing people for pleasure, but I will not get into that part. He was also the one who introduced rice cultivation to the Milan area. But I will get back on that part later. First, I’ll tell you something about the road trip rice made.
So when it comes to rice there are two species…
- Oryza sativa (Asian rice)
- Oryza glaberrima (African rice)
The Africans and Asians will name it something else, of course. The African species is only eaten in Africa. So we’ll leave that one. And also, the rice used for risotto is originated from the Asian one.
The consensus of scientific researchers is that domestication of rice started around 13.000 to 8.000 years ago near the Yahtzee river, China. It ended around 2000 B.C. Then slowly the cultivation went along with the river spreading to villages and city’s near the Yahtzee river and further until it covered the very old area we call China today.
And history will be history, so there were floods, countries went to war, famines broke out, and all the other stuff they had to worry about back then that caused people to move. So the spreading of rice went further. In addition to reasons of course, like trading.
And from there on over the world and evolved with all the divarication the world has to offer. Not only in color, but also in shape. Some cultures had short grain rice, others cultivated long grain rice or anything in between. Rice was used for pudding, delicious Indian dishes or Japanese sushi. But back to Italy.
Although the Italians were known to rice as an expensive commodity, it was the Arabs who conquered parts of Europe and introduced sophisticated ways of irrigation so they could still enjoy the rice dishes they made at home. From Sicily, it found its way to North Italy.
Rice got popular and it was the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, here he is again, who initiated to scale op the production. The story goes he send a sack of rice to another duke claiming he could make twelve sacks of rice with it.
It could be true. Besides torturing he was known for his interest in Agriculture. He constructed canals for irrigation and transportation which really benefit the area.
And according to writer John Irving, it was then, in the 15th century, a dish which nowadays we probably would recognize as risotto was written about in a cookbook called “Libro de arte Coquinaria”. Which, believe it or not, is still for sale to this day.
Of course, Rice is eaten everywhere in the country but it’s the northern part which is known for their rice production. Especially the Po valley, which the Italians call La pianura Padana.
This valley, in the northern part of Italy, spreads out over Piemonte, Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia and is called after the river Po. The river itself is mostly originated in the Alps and flows out in the Adriatic Sea. It makes the north part of Italy varied with its different highs and grounds and climates. And you can imagine how it influences the rice cultivation.
Now the rice cultivation was already huge. But then Francesco Rossi, a civil engineer, came up with a scheme to connect the river Po with its tributary, the river Ticino. A canal. This was constructed under the patronage of Cavour so the canal was called “Cavour canal”.
Because of this new irrigation system the rice cultivation grew massive. Which was economically very important for the country and made Italy the biggest rice-producing country in Europe.