How Restaurateurs Can Save Italian Rice

This is time of year in which the rice growing areas of the Po Valley are preparing to flood the fields for sowing. First, the fields are plowed and fertilized, the soil is prepared to assimilate the water and the banks and canals are repaired. With all this water everywhere, the landscape takes on a very special charm.
In order to anticipate the harvest and achieve better prices on a market that’s growing tougher all the time, some producers have already collected the water they need from the canals and are ready to sow. Such people are obviously more interested in making cash than in growing a quality product. Quality simply can’t be achieved with haste: it’s necessary, instead, to flood the fields by the middle of April and to sow the rice in the most suitable period, namely at the end of the month. In both cases, producers have to come terms with a market on which prices have been dropping year by year since 1995. According to forecasts, prospects aren’t bright for the future either. Rice is a staple ingredient in many diets round the world, and it’s no coincidence that almost all the poorest countries also happen to be great producers of the cereal. These rices, aimed at a market on which they have to literally ‘feed’ the hungry, are extremely cheap, hence impossible to compete against price-wise. And as if that weren’t enough, customs duties are expected to be cut totally on exports to the poorest countries.
As in all the other sectors of Italian agriculture, the answer is to safeguard quality and protect typicality – in this case, the country’s great wealth of rice varieties. Despite the first signs of a change in approach, this concept has yet to be fully developed.
Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls is the sales policies adopted by producers. Under pressure from the big rice complanies, they have got their marketing horribly wrong, failing altogether to exploit the image of risotto varieties, such as Carnaroli and Vialone Nano and the importance of the use of other varieties in the kitchen. Rice has been grown in the Po valley for six centuries, giving rise to a vast range set of recipes. Every Italian region has a characteristic risotto of its own, not to mention a timballo and a pudding and so on. In true Italian fashion, the development of cereal varieties has gone hand in hand with their use in the kitchen. It has been a mistake to implement sales strategies geared to the interests of the big rice companies, whose policies are based not on the importance and specific application of different (more expensive) varieties, such as Roma, Baldo, Arborio and Balilla, but on price alone. Luckily top Italian restaurateurs (Gualtiero Marchesi comes to mind) have managed at least to raise the profile of Carnaroli, which just ten years ago looked like disappearing because it was too expensive to produce. These days risotto is enjoying a great deal of success abroad; the fact that it can only be made with Italian rice varieties is decisive, if we want to promote our homegrown products. Restaurants are already playing a vital role, but producers too have to join in and avoid waging losing battles.
Everything rotates round the concept of quality. Current legislation is very vague, classifying rice on the basis of the size of the grain (common, semifine, fine and superfine). As a result, on account of the elongated shape of their grains, two very different varieties such as Roma and Baldo are both included in the superfine category. One can even be sold one for the other. Sometimes a big rice company may even prepare the packaging for Baldo, say, citing the name on the label, only to buy Roma instead for reasons of market availability. It will then go ahead and package the Roma rice regardless.The only problem is that Baldo cooks perfectly in 16 minutes, Roma in 12. So what if somebody who’s used to cooking Baldo serves their family Roma rice that’s been in the pan for16 minutes?

First published in La Stampa 24/03/02

Adapted by John Irving

Carlo Petrini

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