miércoles, 1 de octubre de 2014

Risotto part I : how to choose the right rice

Talk about rice for us is talking about a product we've always seen at home, we literally grew up surrounded by rice fields and rice was of course at the very base of our gastronomy. One of us (Tom) grew up in the area where Europe's biggest rice fields are located. Even if it's Italy, around Milan they tend to eat more rice than pasta as a "primo piatto". It's known that rice is the main food for more than the half of the population of the World, and it's a key ingredient in the fight against hunger in the developing countries.

The king of the rices produced around Milan is the Carnaroli, the kind of rice that many consider to be perfect to make one of the most celebrated dish of Italian cuisine: the risotto. The risotto is a complicate dish if you don't know exactly what ingredients you need, you just can use few varieties of rice in order to get a proper risotto. You need one of these three varieties: the Arborio, the Vialone Nano or the Carnaroli rice. These kinds of rices have an interesting interior structure that let them cook for a while without becoming a glue. The rice is creamy yet al dente.

The rice seems to have been cultivated as a food for some 12,000 years now, at the beginning just in Asia, maybe in the area around the Himalaya mountains. A food that has seen the rise and the fall of every great historical civilty of the World. That's pretty impressive!  Inside the chinese cultivar, we can appreciate a kind of rice that's known as Japonica. The Arborio rice, perfect for risotti, belongs to this variety. many loves the Arborio rice because of its quality and its cheaper price than the Carnaroli. The Arborio has been the rice used in the past centuries to cook great risotti, until it was developed its great rival, the Carnaroli.

Sack of Carnaroli rice straight from a mill at Abbiategrasso

After the birth in China, it seems to have moved southwards, arriving in India. Here it will be discovered by Greece through the adventurous campaign of Alexander the Great, and after some centuries, the Romans will know somewhat about rice through confused travel tales. With the implosion of the Roman empire every sector of the Western world collapsed, and that happened to commerce too. The economical exchanges between the East and the West ceased and many product from Asia fell into oblivion. We have to wait the Arab conquest in the Mediterranean sea to see the rice back in Europe. 

Arabs imported the cultivation of rice first in the Iberian peninsula (Valencia) and then into southern Italy, around year 1000. Slowly crawling up the boot, we can observe the first cultivation of rice in northern Italy at the end of XV century. It was a late but intense love between the flat and wet landscape of northern Italy and rice. A great sponsor of rice in Lombardy was Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan in the great season of Leonardo da Vinci's Milan. Let us tell ya that Duke Gian Galeazzo was born at the castle of Abbiategrasso, the borough of Milan where one of us (Tom) was born. We can pridely say that we've rice in our veins!

By the will of duke Gian Galeazzo's father, Galeazzo Maria, the first modern rice fields in Lombardy were created in 1468.
Gian Galeazzo also gave as a most precious gift a sack of rice to the duke of Ferrara in 1475, sign of how the rice was considered a very expensive exotic spice.  In the following centuries, the cultivation of rice grew in all Europe, and overall southern european countries like Spain and Italy. Between Lombardy and Piedmont we can see now the biggest rice fields in the whole Old Continent
Abbiategrasso castle, Milan, built in XIV century

When you fly above Milan, you will be amazed by the sight of the paddy fields shining in the whole southern Milan, a Pekin Express-like sort of experience. The Milan you don't expect is just some 7-8 kms away from the Duomo cathedral!

Paddy Fields between Milan and Pavia

In 1937 we assist to a great innovation, the birth of the Vialone Nano, from the rices varieties called Vialone and Nano, which it is still nowadays very appreciated by the risotto lovers.
In 1945 we assist to the birth of the king of European rices: mixing the Vialone and the Lencino varieties they obtained an unique kind of rice, the world famous Carnaroli rice. The third variety perfect for the risotto is of course the Arborio rice and there is also a fourth kind of rice fit for a creamy risotto, the Maratelli rice. This kind was created in 1914 through an hybridization starting from the Japonica variety.

The Carnaroli rice has quite characteristic features, like a sort of nail present in one extremity, making it easy to recognise the Carnaroli between the other kinds of rice. The rice grains is longer and bigger than the rest of rice grains. Its strenght is that has a bigger amount of amylose than other kinds of rice, fact that prevent the rice from overcooking. The grains of Carnaroli rice, when cooked along with broth, release the amid, making the rice creamy, but thanks to the amylose they remains somewhat "al dente", and they do not become a glue like the other kinds of rice. Technically, we can say that the Carnaroli rice belongs to the "superfine" rices, and it is different from his rival Arborio because the latter is smaller and has less amid.

Now that we've learned to know the history and the characteristics of this dear friend of us, let's see how to use it to create a great risotto!

See you soon!

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