How Italy became Europe’s rice producer

(CNN) — It was the film that added intercourse enchantment to the gritty neorealist movie interval and made a star out of actress Silvana Mangano.

“Riso Amaro” (“Bitter Rice”), featured girls carrying daring shorts with ripped stockings tramping by way of water, girl-on-girl mud-wrestling, and Mangano’s ample cleavage in the whole lot from tight t-shirts to a negligee.

The movie, a neorealist thriller-slash-tragedy, noticed a legal couple infiltrate the rice fields in Italy’s Piedmont area, and ticked off gun fights and a rice heist.

Belief the Italians to make farming attractive, you could possibly say. However regardless of all of the cleavage pictures, “Bitter Rice” threw the highlight on a job that had been, till then, thankless.

Each summer time, from Might to July, till the Nineteen Sixties (and even Nineteen Seventies in some locations) 1000’s of working-class girls would make their approach to the Po Valley in northern Italy. They have been there to work as “mondine” — discipline weeders, clearing area for the rice crops to develop.

It was backbreaking work.

“They’d begin very early and work until mid-afternoon, on this leaning-over place,” says Dr Flora Derounian, lecturer in trendy languages on the College of Sussex, who makes a speciality of girls’s work and oral histories.

“They have been knee-high in water, uncovered to the solar, and there was a excessive prevalence of illness, together with malaria. One senator who made a speech on their circumstances [in 1953] likened them to one in every of Dante’s circles of hell.”

On being taught the method, Silvana Mangano (who, by the way, was the grandmother of US TV chef Giada de Laurentiis) is alleged to have exclaimed: “Like this, for eight hours? I would not do that work even for one million a day!”

However Derounian says there was way more to the mondine than feeding the nation. Largely left wing, they have been among the solely employees to efficiently protest in opposition to the Fascist authorities, and carried out essential work as a part of the anti-Nazi resistance throughout World Warfare II.

“They did a whole lot of issues like hiding partisans, and passing on messages and supplies,” she says.

However they have been typically handed over throughout post-war efforts to acknowledge the partisans. And generally, that passing over got here from their very own households — even once they’d labored within the resistance collectively (males would do energetic fight and ladies would disguise fighters, present meals and cross on messages).

“There was one case the place the authorities got here to present ‘tessere’ [cards of recognition for the war effort] to members of 1 household. The husband mentioned, no, only one within the household is sufficient — I am going to have mine. The lady — a ‘mondina’ — by no means received her tessera,” says Derounian.

Scandal and starpower

Italy's rice belt follows the River Po across the north of the country, from Piedmont to Veneto.

Italy’s rice belt follows the River Po throughout the north of the nation, from Piedmont to Veneto.

G. GNEMMI/De Agostini Editorial/Getty Pictures

So how did a humble grain get to play middle stage in Italy’s anti-Fascist resistance? It is thought that rice was first domesticated in China’s Yangtze River valley round 10,000 years in the past. Earlier than that, locals had harvested wild rice for a pair extra thousand years.

The Romans imported it to make use of as a spice, and there are information that within the Center Ages it was nonetheless getting used like that — floor, to thicken sauces and dishes equivalent to blancmange, says Diego Zancani, emeritus professor of medieval and trendy languages at Oxford College and writer of “How We Fell in Love with Italian Food.”
Rice cultivation in Italy got here just a little later, he says, in all probability coming into from India. And though custom has Italy’s rice business beginning in Lombardy within the fifteenth century — in 1450, Francesco Sforza, the ruler of Milan, wrote a letter ordering straw hats fabricated from “paglia di riso,” or rice straw — he says that there is proof that it was already being cultivated in Ferrara, now a part of Emilia Romagna.

Both approach, manufacturing revolved round Italy’s “rice belt” — the dank, marshy land across the Po river, working west to east throughout Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Veneto within the north of Italy. The nation swiftly became Europe’s largest producer of rice.

Almost 600 years later, it nonetheless is.

Da Vinci and a thieving priest

Today, Italy's rice belt is mechanized, and worked by individual farmers.

As we speak, Italy’s rice belt is mechanized, and labored by particular person farmers.

Hermes Pictures/AGF/Common Pictures Group/Getty Pictures

Not that it occurred with out scandal. In 1839, a Jesuit priest, Padre Calleri, returned from missionary work within the Philippines carrying the seeds of 43 completely different rice sorts, which he’d stolen. He introduced them again to the Vercelli space in Piedmont, the place the Depend of Cavour, Camillo Benso, enthusiastically promoted the brand new varieties, constructing a canal system to create what would change into Italy’s trendy rice sector.

Benso went on to change into the primary Prime Minister of a newly unified Italy, however he wasn’t essentially the most well-known identify to be concerned with the rice commerce. Leonardo da Vinci was famously employed by the Sforza household to create Milan’s canal system in 1482, which might create a water route from Lake Como to town.

Did he additionally work on irrigation for the household’s rice fields? It is greater than potential, says Zancani. “Chronologically Leonardo matches,” he says. “He went to Milan as an engineer, and Francesco Sforza had been inquisitive about rice 30 years earlier.

“In his ‘domanda,’ or CV, he wrote that he was an professional in hydraulics and waterways, and he participated in an enormous enhance in canals, which improved manufacturing within the Po Valley. So it is not a mistake to say there is a connection.”

The beginning of risotto

"Minestra di riso" or rice soup, quickly became a popular dish.

“Minestra di riso” or rice soup, rapidly became a well-liked dish.


The northern Italians took rice to their hearts, and it swiftly became an integral ingredient in regional cooking.

“From them on we’ve got early recipes of ‘minestra di riso’ — rice soup,” says Zancani.

Renaissance-era courts would present sacks of rice to one another — there are information of the Sforza household of Milan and the Este of Ferrara indulging in rice-based diplomacy. Cristoforo di Messisbugo, the Renaissance movie star chef and Lucrezia Borgia’s grasp of ceremonies, included rice dishes in his famous recipe book.

Not risotto, although.

“Risotto as we all know it was in all probability developed within the nineteenth century,” says Zancani.

Folks then instantly took to it. The dish has change into synonymous with northern Italy, with all of the rice belt areas knocking out their very own variations. Veneto’s seafood twists get an honorable point out, however finally, essentially the most well-known of all must be risotto alla milanese, the place the rice is swirled in parmesan, saffron, wine, and little else. Within the Nineteen Sixties, novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda wrote a well-known homage to the dish — half recipe, half love letter — through which he specified his preferences proper all the way down to one of the best store in Milan to purchase saffron from, and insisting on butter from Lodi.

However not even a creamy risotto alla milanese might assist rice take off decrease down Italy’s boot. Sicily has its rice balls, after all, and there may be some cultivation in Sardinia, too. However Italy’s rice belt has remained firmly across the Po for the reason that 1400s. Under Emilia Romagna, you may be arduous pressed to seek out rice dishes on the menu. Additional south, it is all about pasta.

That particular rice alchemy

Italy is still Europe's biggest rice producer.

Italy remains to be Europe’s largest rice producer.


Nonetheless, up within the north, the rice belt Italians are pushing the rice boundaries. At Ristorante Ponterosso, a restaurant in Monteveglio, Emilia Romagna, chef Massimo Ratti is thought region-wide for his ingenious dishes. Maybe his most well-known is Risotto Luigi XII: rice with lamb, clams, potatoes, pomegranate, orange, chicory, nutmeg and crushed olives. Just like the multi-flavor dishes of the Renaissance courtroom of close by Ferrara, it should not work — however it does.

“Rice is a part of our tradition,” he says. “We’re one of the best producers in Europe as a result of we’ve got one of the best circumstances, however we additionally prefer it. The cooking of our ‘mamma’ and ‘nonna’ is at all times our reference level.”

It is easy to cook dinner rice badly, he says — and it is easy to lose the style of the rice. To maintain it, he says you might want to “toast” it, whereas uncooked, on a excessive warmth, “till it turns into a bit darkish, virtually caramelized.”

Then, he says, you need to add a few spoonfuls of broth, cool it on a marble floor, after which get going with the sauce. It appears like alchemy — and he says it preserves the starch within the rice.

“After that I can do 5 or 6 risottos, as a result of I’ve already handled the starch. Gorgonzola and banana, duck and pinenuts, veggies with goats cheese, kiwi…”

His different well-known risottos embrace melon with smoked pecorino, and risotto with pumpkin, chestnuts and pomegranate.

“Individuals who like rice, like rice,” he says merely, including that carnaroli is his prime choose of rice variant for an excellent risotto.

The brand new risotto-friendly variants

Mondine in the rice fields of Piedmont, circa 1920-1950.

Mondine within the rice fields of Piedmont, circa 1920-1950.

American Inventory Archive/Archive Pictures/Getty Pictures

They actually do like rice. Previously century, the Italians have labored arduous on creating their splendid sorts of the grain. Ratti’s beloved carnaroli was “launched” in 1945 — a medium-grained cross between vialone and lencino, named after its inventor, Emiliano Carnaroli, former president of the Ente Nazionale Risi, or Nationwide Rice Group (sure, Italy has a Nationwide Rice Group).

The high-starch arborio and vialone nano (itself a cross of vialone and nano) are the opposite well-liked risotto rices, the starch making for a creamy last dish. Each originated within the Italian rice belt.

And as we choose up our packet of carnaroli within the grocery store, it is price remembering that the mondine — and their arduous lives — are the rationale we’re shopping for these Italian rice sorts at this time.

Some have been native girls; others have been seasonal employees, normally from northern Italy, who got here for the weeding months. They labored the rice fields till the Nineteen Sixties, and even the Nineteen Seventies, when pesticides after which mechanization got here into drive.

Native girls lived at house, however seasonal employees have been put up in big dormitories. At Tenuta Colombara, within the Vercelli area of Piedmont, the place risotto with frogs is a typical dish, the Nineteen Twenties dormitory the place as much as 200 girls slept has been was a museum devoted to the lifetime of the mondine.
“It was a tricky job however it was of elementary significance,” says Anna Rondalino, proprietor of the farm, which, at this time, produces one in every of Italy’s most chichi rices, Acquerello, mentioned to be beloved of cooks together with Massimo Bottura.

An aged carnaroli invented by her father, Piero, in 1991, it has a mammoth 20-step manufacturing course of, which incorporates reattaching the nutrient-packed germ to the rice grain (making it as nutritious as wholegrain rice); utilizing a specifically delicate “helix” methodology to whiten the rice; and culminates in it being aged for something from one to seven years.

Life within the fields

Rice fields in the province of Novara, Piedmont.

Rice fields within the province of Novara, Piedmont.

G. GNEMMI/De Agostini Editorial/Getty Pictures

The mondine at Tenuta Colombara ate “panissa” — rice with meat and beans — says Rondalino. They have been paid in rice, too, says Flora Derounian (who’s not referring to Tenuta Colombara, however has studied the mondine usually). A scene in “Riso Amaro” reveals the ladies being paid one scoop of rice for on daily basis they labored. Feminine youngsters would additionally work within the fields, and the ladies would have their infants delivered to them to breastfeed at lunchtime.

Left-wing politics dominated the rice fields, maybe due to the powerful circumstances. Many mondine have been members of their native communist events, and, Derounian says, “they have been at all times asking for higher circumstances, higher meals.” There are documented strikes underneath fascist and Nazi rule. “They have been one of many solely workforces to protest underneath fascism and achieve concessions,” says Derounian — together with higher pay, shorter working days and the fitting to convey meals into the fields for his or her break instances. And once they joined wider protests, the mondine could be put on the entrance, particularly through the Nazi occupation, she says — “they have been much less more likely to be arrested.”

It did not at all times work. One lady was killed at a protest in 1949. Maria Margotti — a former member of the resistance — was 34 when she was shot, protesting for agricultural employees rights in Molinella, Emilia Romagna. Thirty different folks have been injured when police fired on the 6,000-strong crowd.

Battle and group

The rice fields line the area around the River Po, known for its cypress trees.

The rice fields line the realm across the River Po, recognized for its cypress bushes.


It wasn’t all feminine solidarity, after all. There was friction between the native girls and the “forestiere” or “foreigners”, who got here from exterior the realm. If native girls have been placing for higher pay, landowners would usher in outsiders to work. “It prompted a whole lot of issues,” says Derounian. The well-known combat scene in “Riso Amaro,” through which the ladies wrestle within the muddy water, is greater than about titillation, she says — they’re combating over “scab” employees.

However, she says, when the mondine take into consideration their previous lives, it is with affection. “There’s undoubtedly a rose-tinted reminiscence — they speak about a way of group, solidarity, participation within the resistance and communism. That has actually overtaken the reminiscence of how tough it was,” says Derounian.

They’d sing as they labored, and even at this time, there are mondine choirs round northern Italy — some with former employees nonetheless in them, however others made up of kin and native girls, preserving their historical past alive.

All of it stopped when pesticides and mechanization started. From the Nineteen Sixties, the mondine started to be pushed out.

“It was a very turbulent course of, as a result of they have been freelancers. Farmers who had mechanized would put up indicators with a determine of a mondina crossed out,” says Derounian.

However they did not go down with no combat. “Typically they’d reverse protest and go to work with out being invited.”

By that time, the mondine had gone from relative nationwide obscurity, recognized solely within the rice belt, to worldwide stardom, due to “Riso Amaro.”

However whereas its hypersexualized camerawork and beginning of a bombshell within the form of Silvana Mangano galvanized a nation, the movie was making a critical level in regards to the working circumstances of the mondine.

In any case, this was a neorealist movie — Italy’s postwar style specializing in the dwelling circumstances of the poorest members of society — and director Giuseppe de Santis was a paid up member of the PCI, or Italian Communist Celebration. He’d additionally fought as a partisan in opposition to the Nazis in World Warfare II

However they wanted intercourse enchantment to get the movie funded. And, within the form of Mangano, they received it.

Silvana Mangano with Vittorio Gassman in "Riso Amaro."

Silvana Mangano with Vittorio Gassman in “Riso Amaro.”

Lux Movie/Sundown Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Pictures

“There is no different feminine workforce other than prostitutes or fashions which have actually captured the creativeness within the postwar interval,” says Derounian.

“However I feel that is come at the price of them being extremely sexualized. In a single [oral history] interview, one lady mentioned that after the movie they have been regarded as prostitutes, which wasn’t truthful.”

The mondine did take one inspiration from the movie although — trend. They swapped their lengthy weeding skirts for the shorts worn by Silvana and her companions within the film.

Derounian says that the movie — and its mass market enchantment — prompted a “huge debate within the Communist Celebration over whether or not it was a sellout.”

However finally, she mentioned, the movie “put rice on the map as a nationwide product, and it catapulted the mondine into everyone’s minds.”

So subsequent time you are having fun with that creamy risotto, keep in mind its hyperlinks to the resistance, Da Vinci and, after all, 10,000 years past, to China. But in addition consider the mondine, whose arduous labor made Italian rice — and dishes like risotto — go around the globe.