Food News

The story behind risotto

The cultivation of rice in Italy sparked political conflict and the wonder that is risotto, writes John Irving.

Pumpkin and vermouth risotto

William Meppem (pumpkin and vermouth risotto), John Paul Urizar (squash risotto), Con Poulos (squid ink risotto) Vanessa Levis (herbed pea risotto)

In Italy, the International Slow Food Movement guru Carlo Petrini likes to cite spaghetti al pomodoro as archetypal fusion food: pasta from China, tomato from the Americas. The same could equally be said of risotto alla Milanese: rice also from China, saffron from Spain, courtesy of the Arabs.

The Romans used rice solely for medicinal purposes, and the plant only began to be cultivated as a source of nutrition by the Arabs during their occupation of Sicily in the 10th century. It’s likely that Venetian merchants later imported rice. Venice has a dish of rice with mutton and cinnamon called risi in cavroman: add dried apricots and raisins, close your eyes, and you could be in Tunis or Beirut.

Find risotto recipes

At the end of the 14th century, Cistercian monks began to grow rice round Vercelli in Piedmont, and in a letter written in 1475 then Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, describes the rice fields round his city, the capital of Lombardy. Piedmont and Lombardy are Italy’s main rice-growing regions to this day.

Squash risotto with Taleggio and oregano.

The earliest Italian rice recipes were sweet concoctions, but in the 15th century, in his Libro de Arte Coquinaria (“the art of cooking”), the Milanese cook Maestro Martino includes one in which rice is boiled in meat broth and mixed with eggs. The makings of risotto, maybe.

For centuries the only rice variety cultivated in Italy was known as nostrale (“home-grown”). Then, in 1839, Padre Calleri, a missionary in the Philippines, smuggled home varieties of the Japonica subspecies and scores of new hybrids were developed. Among these, the short-grained carnaroli and arborio were perfect for risotto – rice softened in fat, preferably butter, and cooked with the gradual addition of broth, water or wine. When the rice has completely absorbed the liquid and taken on a creamy consistency, the risotto is ready.

Today, rice only appears in the southern Italian diet in dishes such as the arancini of Sicily (the fried balls of rice and ragù beloved by caterers everywhere), the sartù of Naples (a sumptuous rice timbale), and the tiella of Puglia (a baked vegetable casserole with mussels), while in the north risotto has deep roots, ahem. I used to go to football matches in Turin with an old man from Casale Monferrato, at the heart of the Piedmontese rice fields. Before heading for the game, we’d have a risotto; he wouldn’t have considered eating anything else for his Sunday lunch. Another friend, Alberto Capatti, a native of Como in Lombardy, is one of Italy’s leading food historians. Whenever he orders risotto at a restaurant, he appraises its colour and flavour like a sommelier tasting wine. As for consistency, he doesn’t like it too al dente. Talk about going against the grain.

In the 1920s and ’30s the Fascist regime attempted to impose risotto as a national dish, and a national rice board was set up to promote consumption. Recipe books were published with titles like Eat Rice and Rice is Health, and rice became a fixture in school canteens and mess halls. “Home produce is best, especially rice: we don’t eat enough of it!” wrote domestic scientist Fernanda Momigliano.

Autarky, or self-sufficiency, was the goal, but the campaign was ideological as well as economic. Today it’s hard to imagine a spaghetti-less Italy, but at the time pasta was regarded as the main culprit for what Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, described as the “sluggishness, pessimism, passivity and neutralism” of the “Italic race”. The Futurists helped develop the image of the “Fascist man”, a concentrate of manliness, energy and violence. In their 1931 Il Manifesto della Cucina Futurista they called for the abolition of pasta, which was unsuited, they said, to the speed and dynamism of modern living.

Can You Cook Rice? was the title of another book designed to encourage the use of rice as a substitute for pasta. Hence recipes for risotto alla Bolognese, alla Fiorentina, and so on. Modern inventions with no historical grounding, these were grafted onto existing regional traditions to extend rice’s geographical reach.

Squid ink risotto.

Risotto is famous for its versatility and the ease with which it assimilates all sorts of ingredients. (In the old Milanese dialect, risott means “hotchpotch” or “jumble”, by the way.) The classics are risotto alla Milanese and risotto ai funghi with dried or fresh mushrooms, without which no Italian wedding reception would be complete. Then there are the old peasant risotti with cabbage or beans or pumpkin and those that exploit the fauna of the rice fields – frogs, eels, minnows, even coots. Or the seafood risotti of the coastal regions, redolent of Spanish paella.

In some Piedmontese risotti, red wine replaces broth. I once had a column in The Guardian in which, under the pseudonym Francesco Quirico, I posed as an Italian food enthusiast. Unbeknown to me, a recipe of mine for risotto alla Barbera was tested by the paper’s wine critic Malcolm Gluck. “I amended it in one small particular that may horrify Signor Quirico,” he wrote. “I substituted a bottle and a half of Aussie shiraz for the Barbera. I had never thought of a red-wine reduction on such a spectacular scale as Quirico’s, but the result was stunning.” See what I mean about versatility?

Herbed pea and pancetta risotto.

After the war, in 1948, the film Riso Amaro (“bitter rice”) revealed the terrible working conditions in Italy’s paddies, where the mondine, or rice weeders, would slave all day long in the sizzling heat. But the iconic stills of Silvana Mangano up to her knees in water did more for her career as a sex symbol than they did for the rice industry. In 1950 the Italian market research institute Doxa carried out a nationwide survey on rice consumption. One Roman respondent said, “After seeing Riso Amaro and the unhygienic way rice is grown, many people have gone off the stuff,” while in Sicily a dressmaker from Catania predictably told the interviewer, “After eating a plate of rice, I feel I could immediately start on the pasta.”

Today, rice is cultivated with state-of-the art technologies and Italy is Europe’s leading producer. Risotto still enjoys popularity in its traditional enclaves, but globalisation is initiating a slow process of culinary hybridisation. As immigrants adapt Italian rice to their own dishes, so Italians are taking a liking to varieties such as Patna and basmati, now as readily available as carnaroli or arborio.

We began with fusion and with fusion we end.

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