Risotto – a gift of colonialism
The veil of times gone by covers a big part of the history of riziculture in Italy, but some facts are known. The Romans knew rice, but they cultivated it for medicinal purposes only, not as a food grain. The Arabian invasion of parts of Europe established rice fields early on in Spain and Sicily. They were exporting rice from the fertile island Sicily already during the tenth century. During following centuries the popularity of rice grew among the wealthy owing to the exorbitant prices of the product.
In the 15th century budding capitalists invested heavily into the clearing of the Lombardy plains in northern Italy to grow rice there. The flat lands, abundance of water and humidity, especially in the Po Valley, provided the perfect environment for this crop. The growing towns of Venice, Milan and Ferrara made this a hugely profitable investment. Unfortunately, only the capitalists profited from this development. The workers, many of them children, were practically kept as slaves.
During the centuries rice became a staple in this part of Italy. The cooking technique of risotto was invented some time along the way. The most famous of all the risotto recipes is undoubtedly the risotto alla Milanese. This goes back to the year 1574. The magnificent Gothic cathedral, the duomo of Milano, was being built. A young apprentice named Valerius was responsible for colouring the glass windows. Because he had obtained a brilliant yellow colour, everybody joked that he had used saffron for the glass. Tired of the teasing, he added saffron to the risotto which was served at his master’s wedding. The rice tasted so good, that saffron remains the essential ingredient of risotto alla Milanese.
Even today the fields flooded for rice characterise the countryside only a few minutes away from downtown Milan. Growing rice relied heavily on cheap labour until the 1960s when machines took over the harvesting. Before, thousands of women called mondine left their homes in Emilia and Veneto to go to work in the rice fields.
They became a legendary sight in northern Italy. For eight hours, they worked barefoot in the water, protected from the sun by large straw hats. Dressed in short pants and long sleeves, they slowly walked backward, bending toward the ground to pick up weeds that infested the rice fields. Famous are the melodies they sang—about their tough days, their resentment for their supervisors, and about love and their homes far away.
The dramatic neo-realistic movie “Riso Amaro” (“Bitter Rice”), produced by Dino De Laurentiis in 1950, revolves around the lives of the mondine, starring his later wife, the great Italian actress Silvana Mangano.