“Born in water and dies in wine”
Risotto has long been a staple in my home, both while growing up, and as an adult in my own home. My grandfather Carlo used to say as we were eating risotto, “Rice is born in water and dies in wine”. I always thought that was rather a clever saying, but later learned that Grandfather Carlo did not make it up. It is a common saying in the Northern part of Italy, from which he came. And, for an Italian, particularly an Italian of the North it is the truth.
When we have rice, it’s risotto and the first liquid to touch the rice during the cooking process is wine. I know of no recipe where this is not the case, but there may be one somewhere.
How Rice Became Italian Food
The story of rice and and eventually how it became risotto in Northern Italy is a long one. Historians tell us that wild rice was domesticated roughly 10,000 to 14,000 years ago in the tropical and subtropical regions of East Asia.
During his Asian expeditions in 320 BC, Alexander the Great found rice growing along the Indus River and introduced rice to Greece. In the 8th Century the Arabs were bringing rice to Spain, Sicily and Portugal and it is most likely that Portugal brought it to the Northern part of Italy.
However, rice was not grown in Italy until the 1400’s. Prior to actually producing the crop, rice was consumed only by the rich and was used for medicinal purposes as well as food.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Role
Italy is the largest producer of rice in Europe, and the Po River Valley in the Lombardia Region of Italy is where it is primarily grown. What has made this possible really goes back to Leonardo di Vinci, who spent 25 years in Milan arriving in 1482. He was invited there to design a series of canals, Navigli as they are called in Italy, for the purpose of navigation and irrigation.
These canals still exist today but are no longer used for transporting goods. A lively night life has been established along the Navigli as it winds through the city of Milan with bars, restaurants and places to gather with friends.
Stain Glass Windows Led To “Risotto alla Milanese”
A story goes that in 1574 Varlerio della Fiandra, a Belgium glass maker, came to Milan to create the stain glass windows for the Cathedral. Among his many secrets for creating beautiful, vibrant colors of glass was his sun golden glass. His secret was to color the glass using saffron. Varlerio’s daughter was getting married and as a prank, one of the interns who worked under him scooped up a handful of saffron and on the day of the wedding celebration threw it into the pot of the rice that was cooking for the reception. Too late to make changes, the cooks brought out the huge mound of golden “risotto”. Much to the astonishment of the guests, it was deemed to be the newest culinary delight and has lasted centuries.
Three Rice Choices for a Fabulous Risotto
There are several things that go into the making of a really great risotto. The first is the rice. What allows that creamy texture and mouth feel of a well made risotto, is not just the skill of the cook, but the rice. You need rice with a high level of starch, and the three used in Italy, as well as grown in Italy are Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano.
All three of these varieties may be used to make risotto, but the Carnaroli is considered to be the King of Risotto Rice.
Carnaroli, the King of Risotto Rice
Carnaroli is a sturdy, short grained rice with a high starch content. This allows each grain to absorb a higher amount of liquid without breaking down the rice structure. You end up with a creamy, velvety risotto with little grains of rice that have maintained their shape, and still have a very slight crunch.
Arborio Rice, A Common Choice
Arborio rice is grown in the Piedmont/Po Valley region of Italy and is named after the town of Arborio. While it is technically considered a short grained rice, it is still a longer grain than either the Carnaroli or Vialone, and has a lower starch content. It makes a very good risotto, but perhaps not as good a choice as the other two varieties.
Vialone Nano Rice, A Cross Breed from Verona
Vialone Nano rice is actually a cross breed of both the Vialone and Nano variety. It has been around since 1937 and is grown just to the south of Verona. It is a small, round little kernel with a high starch content and is excellent for risotto, especially those recipes that tend to be a bit more “soupy”. Each grain has a capacity to absorb large amounts of liquid while still holding its shape and retaining its texture.
Final Tips for a Great Risotto
Risotto is not difficult, but it does take time and attention. The things you need to remember are:
- Use one of the rices mentioned above.
- NEVER wash the rice. You don’t want to get rid of any of the starch.
- “Toast” or “sauté” the rice in a bit of oil or butter before you add the wine and liquid. You sauté it just a bit, you do not want to color it. This toasting is another step that allows each grain to absorb the maximum amount of liquid.
- And finally, take your time! After the wine, has been absorbed, add one dipper full of simmering liquid at a time. Stir, allow the rice to absorb before adding another. Typically, the rice will absorb three cups of liquid for every cup of rice. However, it can sometimes take a bit more so have plenty of warm stock simmering and available.