We went to collect the rice in Vercelli and right in the rice fields where they shot Riso Amano. Here's how it works today, that the mondine are gone, between new and old varieties of rice
The origin of rice cultivation dates back to centuries ago in the Far East. It arrives in Italy, in particular in the triangle of the provinces of Vercelli, Novara and Pavia, Only during the Renaissance, but already in the fifties of the eighteenth century almost a quarter of the Piedmont territory cultivated with rice is located in Vercelli. But if Vercelli is the capital of rice, Cascina Venerìa in its district is the largest company single-body risicola in Europe, winner of an important gold medal. Set of film Bitter Rice and of the most recent documentary Bitter smile, this is a place of extreme charm, where you can learn all about the world of rice growing and where you can relive the atmosphere of the times of mondine that have inspired cinema and literature.
Risiculture: how rice cultivation works
The world of rice cultivation has changed radically in the fifties: with the mechanization, which has replaced human labor and the use of herbicides, which has greatly altered biodiversity in soils. In November the combine harvesters begin their rest period, until the spring, when towards March and April we will proceed with plowing and irrigation, because we remember that the rice needs a lot of water. Then, in May, it's time for sowing: usually 140 to 190 kilos of seed per hectare are distributed with direct sowing, which in Italy is the only method of rice cultivation. Once the rice is ready, it is fundamental to choose the right moment of the cut, given that depending on the variety ripen at different times. The period of collection, we move on to storage, or the conservation of rice in silos, where it can also be years, indeed; the more time passes, the more the rice will be cooked better. Also there processing rice is one of the most important steps to determine the quality of the product: after separating the beans from impurities, grass, soil and rocks, we proceed with the removal of the gem and the outer cell layers, first of the husk , ie the hard outer shell; then we move on to husking which happens by passing the rice between two abrasive rollers that peel it. After processing, the White rice it represents about 60% of the original paddy rice, while when it comes only brown, it is about brown rice, which preserves pericarp and gem and therefore has higher percentages of nutrients. Today, the machines, from the threshing to the dryer, greatly help each of these phases, while once a great part of the work was in the hands of the oilers.
They are by now the last appendages of a vanished world, the mondine, seasonal workers often emigrated from elsewhere, like Angela Uaglivo di Caselle in Pittari, in Cilento: "I was born in 1932 and for years I was a mondina in Vercelli. I also made a small mess behind the trucks, just to keep my children, but two months a year I was staring at the rice paddies. It was a life like the military there, we slept all women together in a shed, on the rice straw. There was a common disease that came often, they called it the "rice sickness", that is, there were so many bubbles on the legs. Then there were so many mosquitoes. When I returned to Caselle because of my father's death, the pharmacist looked at my legs and told me: "My mother, how are you my children?" Then we always walked barefoot, working eight hours a day. If we sometimes asked for overtime to get a little extra money, we would also work in the evening, a couple of hours, often in the team. Then packages arrived with blankets and mats. I never inquired about who had been to send them, but thanks to those packages we were a bit 'better".
Variety of rice (not just Carnaroli)
Among the main varieties of rice, today the favorite is the Carnaroli, especially for risottos given the high starch content, the consistent grain and the excellent cooking resistance. But in the past it was not like that: the most widespread historical variety, for risottos, was precisely theNative to, as the name says, which during the fascist period was renamed table; then it was abandoned for small size and low cooking resistance so much so that today it is used more for arancini and timballi. It's theArborioinstead, the one with the biggest bean of all, born in Baraggia in 1946, in the namesake country. The added value of Arborio DOP Baraggia is the authenticity of the variety: about 95% of the rice grown and packaged as Arborio in Italy is actually Volano, a similar variety of the '70s; later, thanks to the PDO specification, the authentic Arborio cultivar is grown in Baraggia. Another highlight of the Baraggia is rice S. Andrea of Baraggia, which takes its name from the Abbey of Vercelli, whose masters are Emanuele and Pietro of the company Goio of Rovasenda, active and competent in the field for years (today even with a foodtruck around). S. Andrea is increasingly appreciated everywhere, particularly in the high catering sector because it cooks in less time and releases more starch than anyone else. For those who, instead, were looking for types with less starch we remember the Bold, ideal for soups, the Romethe Lotus which falls within the denomination Ribe and the Black Venus, increasingly widespread. For risottos, especially those with fish and vegetables, there is also the Vialone Nano but its area, more than the Vercelli area, is the Isola della Scala, the Veronese low up to Mantua. All these varieties are conserved in purity at Cascina Venerìa, which guarantees a precious protection of biodiversity.
The Cascina Venerìa is different from the others for many reasons, among which being the only producer of rice a complete supply chain: Everything, in fact, happens in the 750 hectares surrounding, from the conservation and reproduction of the various seeds, up to processing, packaging and sale. In addition, it pays special attention to the selection and quality, with a virtually zero percentage of broken grains in the packages, which on the other hand also found by Eataly. It is a huge estate, with its own springs, which still preserves intact, albeit abandoned, the structure of the typical Vercelli farmhouse, with the ancient houses of mondine and laborers. In short, a very fascinating place, especially in the autumn fog when the spider webs fly like streamers on the rice fields, as a sign of a life that continues to live thanks to the rice fields. It may be for all these reasons that in 1949 was chosen by Giuseppe De Santis as setting for some sequences of that masterpiece of Bitter rice and in 2003 it was again the film location of the documentary Sorriso Amaro by the Vercelli director Matteo Bellizzi. In 2006, however, he won one gold medal in Spain, in Benicàssim, on the occasion of the first International Rice Olympics, organized by the Académie Internationale de la Gastronomie in Paris. Today, after endless changes of ownership, the farmhouse belongs to the Bertoldo family and, behind the church, there is also a sort of restaurant: open only by reservation for some special evenings, the Veneria Circolo Recreativo offers a menu based on Vercelli dishes, sometimes up to thirty courses, including, of course, panissa in a truly cinematic version.