Rice comes from far away: from Asia , where its wild varieties were already known way back in 3500 BC. It only arrived in Europe centuries and centuries later and the nutritional properties of this cereal weren't immediately recognised. Only after the plagues and famines of the 14 th century did people begin to consider it as a source of nourishment. Consequently, rice presumably arrived in the Vercelli area between 1427 and 1493, bringing immense changes to the lifestyle and landscape.
The restoration and irrigation work carried out over the centuries radically changed the environment and favoured the development of the closed courtyard house, the typical house linked with Vercelli 's farming population, possibly of feudal origin, if not directly derived from the Roman country villa.
The farmhouses can still be found today and some of them are open to visitors, representing the key to understanding the success of the Vercelli district as the "European rice province”.
The territory and its landscape
The Vercelli plain is dominated by rice cultivation. Kilometres and kilometres of paddy fields make this vast territory a fascinating and atmospheric environment, thanks to that sensation of balance between nature and man's activity and the passing of the seasons which transform the paddy fields into a surprising blend of colours.
The winter is dominated by silence and the brown colour of the resting earth, often covered with the white frost or snow and enveloped in the silvery grey of fog. In spring, the reawakening of the paddy fields is bright and crystal clear, like the water that covers them and transforms them into an immense chessboard of mirrors that reflect the surrounding environment, from the clouds to the mountains, trees and even the tiniest blade of grass. In summer the growing rice is bright green, instilling strength and energy into the view, beautifully matching the blue of the sky and the fluffy summer clouds. In autumn the ripe rice turns gold and, before being harvested, adds warm and magical shades to the view.
Despite the fact that the working cycles in the paddy fields are now completely mechanised, the environment still retains the charm of days gone by, a charm which can still be seen in the timeless Italian film entitled Riso Amaro, directed by Giuseppe De Santis, who set the film against the backdrop of the Veneria Farm in Lignana.
The Rice Plains represent a historical, cultural and territorial heritage which is unique in Europe , and must be protected and promoted. The Rice Academy , a non-profit association promoted by the Commercial Trade Association of Vercelli, has been set up for this very purpose. The Rice Academy unites operators in the wine-gastronomy sector in the Vercelli district and of the whole rice production sector, with the mutual aim of restoring and promoting restaurant activities, wine-gastronomy traditions and the cultural-tourist resources of the territory.
Varieties of Vercelli rice
Over 100 varieties of rice are cultivated in the Vercelli district, some of which are considered to be the most traditional and are therefore "protected” by a special Quality Mark.
Baldo : a "young” variety deriving from Arborio, it is a super fine rice of excellent quality and extraordinary gastronomic performance. Rich in starch, its large grains withstand any type of cooking extremely well.
Arborio : a historical variety of rice which is hugely successful and takes its name from the homonymous town in the province of Vercelli . Of all the Italian varieties this is the one with the largest grains, which cook evenly while maintaining a firm central nucleus.
New Maratelli : produced once again following years of abandon, this is definitely one of the varieties which has made rice-growing history. The grain is rounded and suitable for "country-style” cooking and simple, tasty risottos with herbs and spices.
Sant'Andrea : typical of the Baraggia (the northernmost area of the Vercelli Plain, once wild bush and now a Natural Reserve which protects a particular environment and a land rich in parish churches and castles). The structure is compact, with partially elongated grains. The versatility of this rice makes it ideal for soups, English rice pudding, croquettes, fritters or rice cakes, but also simply for being boiled and served as an accompaniment, in place of bread or potatoes.
Carnaroli : one of the great super fine varieties, this is the rice preferred by haute cuisine thanks to its supreme quality. Particularly consistent, it withstands cooking and has very good absorption capacities. This characteristic makes it ideal for non-sticky risottos, rice salads and the finest gastronomic delicacies.
Balilla : also known as Originaria, being the first variety of rice cultivated in Italy , it has small round grains that make it particularly suitable for soups but also for timbales, croquettes, "supplì” and desserts.