Origin of Risotto

Ossobuco alla Milanese with risotto alla Milanese. [photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Ossobuco alla Milanese with risotto alla Milanese. [photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Where did risotto originate?  In northern Italy in the fifteenth century, the Lombardy plains were cleared to establish rice fields.  The motivation for the clearing and reclaiming of the plains was simply the demand of the growing towns for food. That demand was met by budding capitalists who had the financial wherewithal to back the farmers in establishing these rice fields in the Po Valley.  Rice was a relatively new grain introduced to Italy by the Arabs in Sicily some centuries earlier, but was now for the first time being introduced to northern Italy.  One of the earliest references I know of concerning rice in northern Italy is a letter of September 27, 1475 from Galeazzo Maria Sforza to the Duke of Ferrara concerning twelve sacks of rice. In both the Po Valley and in Valencia in Spain rice occasionally replaced bread as a staple. It is a typical part of the story that profit margins were kept high as riziculture in Lombardy meant the near enslavement of workers who were not organized, including children who were exposed to barbarous cruelties according to a Lombard ordinance of 1590 seeking to stop this practice.

Rice was known in Roman times, but only medicinally, and was not grown in a regular or widespread way in the Mediterranean until the rise of Islam. Riziculture had its origins in India, Assam, Burma, Thailand, or China, and the plant slowly made its way west.  Rice was cooked in the pilaf style in Muslim countries and in India, meaning it was light and fluffy with separate grains, while in northern Italy it was cooked in a manner similar to the way other grains were already cooked, namely, as a kind of porridge, aka risotto.

The fourteenth-century cookery manuscript known as the Libro per cuoco by an anonymous Venetian gives a recipe, rixo in bona manera–that is, a kind of porridge of rice cooked in almond milk with sugar. In Italy, a person who laughed easily was said to have eaten rice soup, a play on words: che aveva mangiato la minestra di riso (he had eaten laughter/rice soup).

Comments

  1. CYNDIE C MAHER says:

    Thank you for this informative piece.

  2. I’m interested to know when the particular grain evolved. I’m of Asian descent. In South East Asia, we eat long grain rice. The Japanese have their short grain sushi rice. The Indians have basmati which is long grain and dry. Arborio is glutinous and round grained, looking most like the Japanese rice grain. This article doesn’t quite make sense, because if the tradition in Italy were from South Asia, the rice itself is completely different. And, I believe it’s well established that China is the home of rice varieties that spread through South East Asia while the middle eastern dishes use rice similar to that based in South Asia. They have different growing requirements, textures, cooking time, aroma etc

    • The Italian tradition of rice cookery (risotto) isn’t derived from Southeast Asia, only the rice plant itself. Once rice traveled from its home in southeast Asia or China it was hybridized by agriculturalists and various cooking methods developed in the various lands where it ended up.

  3. Although risotto is a northern Italian dish it probably does not have roots in Milan nor the Spanish who only came to rule in 1535. Rice and risotto predate the Spanish and the first mention of risotto or a precursor of risotto is in the anonymous fourteenth century cookery manuscript known as the Anonymous Venetian’s Libro per cuoco (Book for cooks).

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  1. […] is a northern Italian dish with its roots in Milan.  The Italians were influenced by the Spanish as they were occupied for nearly two centuries by them during the Middle Ages.  Slow cooking […]

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