THE WORLD OF RICE
Friar Vella was definitely a practical joker. Perhaps from boredom, perhaps from a longing to rewrite history in his own way, he sowed false documents into the archives about the Arab domination in Sicily.
One fine day this imaginative Mediaevalist "invented" a IX century Arab document from which it would establish that rice was diffused in Sicily before the year 1000 A.D. As a matter of fact, according to this document, in 800 A.D., the Arabs imposed a tax on the cereal.
Bui historians, as Renzo Ciferri reported years ago. had definitely unmasked the carefree monk. This does not mean however, that rice did not come to Sicily and Southern Italy by way of the Arabs more than 1000 years ago.
More reliable and convincing evidence shows that rice was probably traded through the "Pepper Gate" of Alexandria in Egypt before the Arab expansion in the Mediterranean Basin around 640 A.D. Given its curative qualities it was considered a spice, although less precious than pepper.
The mystery surrounding the origin of the rice plant and its diffusion throughout the world as far as the 45th parallel, the extreme point of its cultivation, will continue to excite students and scholars. In 1952. the Japanese Matsuo patiently reconstructed the story of rice using genetics. thereby supplying his solution to the mystery: Oryza Sativa, its botanical name, appeared more than 7 or 8 thousand years ago in the regions of Java. However, another hypothesis places it in the Cambodian lake regions. Evidence as to its Far East origin comes from archeological excavations in China which prove that rice was already being grown and eaten 7000 years ago. Fossilized remains found in the Yang Tze valley confirm the existence of paddy fields there 3 or 4 thousand years ago.
Finds from caves in Hastinapur, India tell us that rice was being eaten in this Uttar Pradesh state around the year 1000 B.C.
Ancient legends, handed-down stories, oriental cooking history and popular sayings are all there to say "yes" to rice being one of the basics. Not only did Oryza Sativa solve daily needs, but stimulated both governments and the people to adopt it for a more rationalized and profitable agriculture and in doing so it put forth some universal maxims.
Here is a small collection: a Chinese proverb, evidently wanting to reassure the presence of an ever vigilant Providence that advises, "Eat your rice and leave the rest to Providence". Another Oriental saying which sums up the economic and social role of rice, "One man works and nine eat rice". Moreover, talking about the therapeutic food value of rice Oriental doctors warned (and warn), "We live by what we digest, not by what we eat".
Sages of the Salerno School could not have been more poignant, nor could anyone have been so able to illustrate so well the completeness of rice which, like maize, possesses all the essential aminoacids and is easily assimilated.
One of the most significant among the many legends refers to the fortuitous discovery of a rice variety capable of maturing much more quickly, thereby opening up the possibility of cultivation at more northern latitudes. The aforementioned Ciferri, in one of his publications which has become fundamental for any research on the history of rice cultivation, refers to the Emperor Kang Hi, who lived between 1662 and 1723 B.C. and who had a passion for agriculture. One day the Emperor noticed some stalks in his paddy fields that had matured earlier than usual. Further, and somewhat scientific investigation with his dignatories led to "yu-mi", the Imperial rice, a rice which was planted and cultivated north of the Great Wall where the cold season arrived early.
As has also happened in the Po Valley, the area in Italy where rice cultivation is concentrated; and also in Hungary, Romania, the Soviet Union and other far corners of the Old World where the seedlings have to reach maturity and be harvested within 180 days, before the onset of winter. And some relevant data which proves how important rice has been, and will continue to be so, in the diet of Oriental people, figures which show the importance of this cereal on the culture and customs of South-East Asian people.
As demonstrated in a complete and careful document written by Angelo Politi, General Director of the "Ente Nazionale Risi", a Laotian consumes around 170 kg of rice per year, with the figure being even higher about 15 years ago when the maximum was circa 177 kg; followed by Cambodians at 152 kg; Vietnamese and Thailandese at 140 kg; North Koreans at 138 kg; South Koreans at 120 kg; Chinese at more than 103 kg. Some African countries are also serious rice eaters, exemplified by Madagascar with an average yearly consumption of 139 kg per head and Sierra Leone with 120 kg Compared with which, the statistics regarding Europe pale into insignificance: in Western Europe the average consumption is 4.1 kg (5.1 in Italy and circa 3.7 in the E.E.C.).
These considerations lead to other more general ones. The first is the world production of rice: more than 41/2 billion hundredweight of milled rice obtained by planting an area of around 144 million hectares. The second Is the world harvest of grain which has had the task, with rice, of feeding man: more than 5 billion hundredweight obtained, according to the valutation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 230 million hectares. Together rice and grain form the largest part of all the cereals cultivated in the world (8’/2 billion hundredweight).
But although rice plays a marginal role in international transactions, as about 97% is grown for home consuption, it is more rewarding and this was probably the reason (lo combat undernourishment) for its establishment in Europe in the XV and XVI centuries.
To understand this we have Io return to the "Pepper Gate" of Alexandria in Egypt. Ample documentation for that period (around 550 A.C.) shows that the Arabs. Syrians, Nubians. Ethiopians, Armenians and Georgians were involved in its cultivation for food. It was, it seems, a turning point in history as rice was unknown Io the Egyptians and Hebrews, and even the Romans dismissed it with the vague definition "pianta acquatica"; while Plinio the Elder erroneously said that rice was the fruit of a fleshy-leafed vegetable. Even the most informed considered it good only for infusions lo cure stomachaches and other ailments.
This medicinal label given io rice or its use as an ingredient for sweets and desserts continued in Italy and France until the late Medieval. Perhaps rice arrived in Italy via the Crusaders who were fighting Islam in the Holy Land, or from the Arabs in Sicily or the Aragonese in Naples. Perhaps Venetian merchants brought it back from the Middle and Far East. The accounts of the Dukes of Savoy in 1300 A.D. show a debit of "13 Imperials a pound for rice as sweets and "8 Imperials for honey".
Also interesting is an edict from the Excise House in Milan that classified rice as "spices which have arrived from Asia via Greece" and were therefore subjected lo a high excise duty. Another document in 1371 placed it amongst "spices" and gave it the mercantile description "Overseas Rice" or "Spanish Rice". But during that period everything happened: epidemics. wars. shortages of the old "common people" foods (millet, rye, sorghum, barley. corn). The final blow carne with the arrival of the plague, which lasted from 1348 to 1352. The decimation of the population. unparalleled in history. left Italy a desolate wasteland; the recovery needed a highly productive agricultural product. Rice, as the Orientals well knew, was just such a product. thus it came to be seen in a different light and lo consolidate its position as an important food in the West. Because of this ascent in the XV century. rice has been justly described by some scholars as the "Renaissance vegetable".
Rice, like maize and the potato brought from America. considerably improved the quality of life, substituting the "old" crops and contributing to a resumption of normal activity. The history of the various phases of rice in Italy is undoubtedly fascinating.
Its cultivation in the middle of the XV century was already diffused between Lombardy and Piedmont, with paddy fields stretching along the plains around Saluzzo. In 1475, Gian Galeazzo Sforza donated a sack of rice seeds to the Dukes d’Este with the assurance that if they were well used they would produce 12 sacks of rice. This numerical ratio, which in those times bordered on the miraculous, became a constant and by the start of the 1500’s paddy fields covered 5000 hectares - becoming 50,000 hectares by the middle of the XVI century. Harvesting was protected by appropriate measures to avoid the exportation of seed which could have become a weapon in the hands of hostile states.
By 1567 rice was being used in the market of Antwerg for transactions and had a monetary value such as that of precious cloths and spices.
In 1690 it retraced the same journey taken by maize and arrived in Carolina where the environment was suitable for its cultivation, and then gradually spread through America.
Nowadays. 40 or 50 varieties of rice seem normal but for 400 years, from the XV century to 1850, the only available variety was "nostrale", which had to deal with "brusone" a disease which was only understood in 1903 on the occasion of the 2nd. International Rice Convention al Mortara.
In 1839 the Jesuit Father Calleri "illicitly" brought the seeds of 43 varieties of Asian rice to Italy from the Philippines that were to become the servants of the pioneers in vegetable genetics to create the modem rice cultivation. Ai first these were more like poets of the paddy fields than scientists, observing Nature’s behaviour and tentatively proceeding with continual trials lo obtain the leading and most memorable varieties known.
Results founded on empirical studies progressively gave way to research based on more scientific methods. A new phase opened in Vercelli at the beginning of this century with the inauguration of the "Stazione Sperimentale di risicoltura"; the experimentation and research structure was further enriched in the 70’s with a new rice centre at Mortara, founded and managed by the "Ente Nazionale Risi". in the meantime,
the "old" station al Vercelli has been transformed into a specialist section of the "Istituto nazionale di cerealicoltura".
Without doubt, the most spectacular period for Italian rice cultivation started in the middle of the last century when, at the instigation of C. Benso Cavour, the farmers of Vercellese joined together Io open, in 1853, one of the most efficient, and for that time largest. irrigation systems. Without an adequate water supply and distribution system to flood the fields and thus protect the plants from the large temperature swings between day and night, the harvest would not have been able, nor could it today, to reach maturity. This was further enlarged in 1866 with the construction of the Cavour Canal. which allowed the "transfer" of water resources from the Rivers Po, Dora Baltea, Sesia, Ticino and Lago Maggiore Io a district of around 400.000 nectares. The completion came in 1923 with the formation at Novara of an administrative body to manage the water as the Vercellese had done 70 years before.
Furthermore, in the second half of the XIX century thanks to the machines designed and manufactured al Vercelli, in the Novarese and in the Milanese, in Germany and in England. the rice industry was able to modernize by substituting the 18 century rice-mill machinery.
The various cultivation stages (tilling, flooding and planting, weeding, harvesting) cover a span of 180 days from March to October. Above all, the weeding and reaping stages were especially labour intensive and until the end of the "50’" employed between 260-280 thousand people, 60% of whom carne from Lombardy. from Emilia and from Veneto. and in the years preceeding the advent of chemical weed-killers. from the Southern regions of Italy. Also the practice of transplantation Io exploit the soil with other cultivation and then to leave it abandoned required high numbers of capable workers.
Between the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth century the social conditions and the economic treatment of rice-pickers, farm - labourers and wage-earners gave rise to strong social conflicts which were resolved in 1906 with the first collective contract based on a working-day of eight hours. In the same year the first machines were bought to mechanize the various cultivation stages, whereas it will have to wait until 1952 for the introduction of experimental weed-killers. with the use of these becoming diffused from 1957 and they will mark a decisive turning point in the rice-fields from the first years of the Sixties.
Today, Italian rice production depends upon the most advanced chemical and mechanical technology. The circa 11 million hundredweight obtained from 195 hectares (45% of which is concentrated in the Vercellese) is harvested and dried completely by machine. Each hectare, that in 1939 required an average of 1028 man-hours. now requires not more than an average of 50 hours.
Within the limits of the E.E.C., the countries that cultivate rice and protected on the basis of the Treaty of Rome from 1958 to 1967 are France (37,000 hectares), Greece (18.000 hectares), Portugal (37.000 hectares) and Spain (78,600 hectares). Italy is therefore by a long way the most important rice producing partner. And this prominent position has increased the proportion of problems that Italy has had to tackle and resolve over the last 130 years.
One of the deepest crises which the national rice growers had to affront was the aftermath of the Great World Depression of 1929. But to this the sector reacted with the formation in 1931 of the "Ente Nazionale Risi" which since then has been continually developing its technical-economic and promotional role for all the interested parties i.e. agricultural producers. industrial processors, commercial operators, workers and technicians.
The statistics, and some regional dishes such as "risolti rustici" which had the task of guaranteeing sufficient nutriment lo the less well-off classes. confirm that the cereal played an essential social role from the Unification of Italy until the Forties. After which it has partially changed its function and this change is reflected with precision in the average consuption per person (10 kilograms in 1870: 11 kilograms in 19 in 1870; 11 kilograms in 1920; 8 kilograms in 1940; 4.5 kilograms in 1980). The average per person is now again increasing (5.1 kilograms).
This food, after having been a spice in the West and then a basic food staple is now the protagonist in another "performance": the modification that has inserted it into the cultured and civil kitchens of an essentially dynamic Europe which is again looking with renewed attention at the Orient and its centuries old traditions. Older by two thousand years than the basic goat and sheep’s milk (the human race, according to historians, has used it for five thousand years), contemporary of wine and, perhaps of olive oil which came from the Far East. rice really has every quality to perpetuate its fame as first among the five fundamental food species. And, as the daily facts have been demonstrating for years, alimentation and gastronomy techniques will use it over the next decades, increasingly enlarging upon its dietetic virtues.