A picture taken on May 8, 2020 shows a rice plantation near Robbio, Lombardy, during the country's lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. (AFP/Miguel Medina)
Europe's top rice producer Italy has seen consumption of the staple rise throughout the coronavirus pandemic, putting even pasta in the shade.
It's not just popular at home either -- China itself has even signed a deal to import Italian rice.
The Chinese have their eyes on varieties used to make typical risotto dishes such as medium-grained Carnaroli, Arborio, Roma or Baldo.
"It is because our rice is better quality than that cultivated in China," says Stefano Greppi, Pavia province president at Italy's main agricultural union Coldiretti.
Himself the owner of a nearby rice farm, Greppi welcomes the recent signing, during the pandemic, of an agreement allowing Italy, which produces more than half of European rice output, to export rice to China.
That is a boon for producers in the provinces of Pavia, Lombardy, Vercelli and Novara (both in Piedmont) which account between them for 95 percent of national production.
"It's a bit like selling ice cream to the eskimos," quipped daily Il Corriere della Sera the day after the export protocol was signed in April.
"The doors of the huge Chinese market are opening to rice (and risotto) cultivated in the countryside around Pavia," added the newspaper, explaining that "native imitations of Italian risotto" already exist in China.
Spread over 220,000 hectares and cultivated by 4,200 producers in all, Italian rice production totals an annual 1.5 million tons. The country boasts more than 200 varieties in all, each with its own peculiarities.
Even so, Europe is a mere lightweight when it comes to global production. It has just 0.4 percent of the total world output of 500 million tons a year, 90 percent of that Asia-based.
With the wind in its sails internationally, Italian rice is also making good headway at home. Consumption soared 47 percent during the first six weeks of the coronavirus pandemic -- sometimes outstripping demand even for pasta in that period, according to Coldiretti.
"During the COVID-19 emergency, people rediscovered rice and also risotto, which has always been a bit snubbed in Italian cuisine," Stefania Buffa, a 27-year-old rice farmer from Robbio in Lombardy, told AFP.
Sergio Lombardi, 63, who owns a farm in the same area, explains that "the region can count on water reserves and a constant supply throughout the duration of rice cultivation, which is not possible in many regions of Italy."
Sown in spring, Italian rice is harvested between September and October.
Rice was introduced into the country's north in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, who took upon themselves the task of improving what was then unsanitary and wooded terrain prone to malaria outbreaks. The rice crop benefited from the arrival of canals, whose layout Leonardo da Vinci designed.
Mechanization then brought further crop advances.
Up until the 1950s and 1960s, people came from the south of Italy, particularly women, dubbed "mondine" or seasonal pruners, to cultivate the Po plain.
Their harsh working conditions inspired the famous protest song "Bella ciao" as well as neo-realist films including Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro, 1949) notably featuring Silvana Mangano and Vittorio Gassman.
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