Page #4 – The unbearable lightness of risotto

The history of Rice

From the Yang Tze Valley to the homes of Italians

Rice was born in the Far East where traces and finds attest to its presence in the Yang Tze valley even ten thousand years ago, it was then widely cultivated in Mesopotamia in the fourth century. BC, and from there it spread to Africa and the Arab world to finally arrive in Europe. It was also known by the Greeks and Romans but, until the Middle Ages, it was treated as a spice and used in medicine and cosmetics.

It was at the end of the 15th century that cultivation in Italy began and periods of famine revealed the nutritional properties of rice. However, the stagnant waters led to the spread of Anopheles mosquitoes and malaria, and the idea that rice was harmful.

Only at the end of the 19th century, a medical research has re-evaluated the properties of rice by introducing new methods of maintaining the rice fields with the flow of water.

Until that period there are no sure traces of risotto (rice was mostly cooked in soups), but in the second half of the 19th century a dish called Risotto alla Certosina spread in Milan. Probably conceived by the monks of the Certosa of Parma, it is a rice that today we would define as “pick up”, because it is cooked with what you have at home. And at the same time Risotto alla Milanese was born, an aristocratic version with the very expensive saffron to give it the colour of gold. In 1853, in the book “New Economic Milanese Chef” by Giovanni Felice Luraschi, there is a recipe that is practically identical to the one followed today.

Risotto is therefore a new dish, only partially codified, and in continuous evolution.

On the neutral basis of rice, more or less daring combinations have been experimented with meats, fish and vegetables or even with fruit such as risotto with strawberries, undeservedly famous in the eighties. What is certain is that to be called risotto, the rice must be toasted and then cooked over a moderate heat together with the other ingredients, with the constant addition of boiling liquid (broth or even just flavoured water) to finish with a creaming phase, in which the rice is left to rest and mix with fat, traditionally butter and parmesan. This type of cooking causes the starch released by the grain to gelatinize, forming a cream that gives the risotto its characteristic consistency.

… And to Violetta’s home.

Despite the fact that it is therefore a very substantial dish, in Italy there is a popular saying that was often quoted at Violetta’s house:

“Lu risu n’ora te mantene tisu”

“Rice keeps you on your feet only for one hour.”

Honestly? Is that so? Now, I don’t know if this popular belief has a scientific basis, or even just empirical, perhaps in the peasant world when the people who used to work hardly didn’t find any satisfaction in a bowl of rice, but come on people! Just think about the amount of broth, butter, cheese that is normally present in a risotto and tell me how many hours you need to burn all those calories.

I guess what they should really say is that rice keeps you on the treadmill for at least one hour, it sounds more appropriate to me!

The Stove

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