Rice today is the staple food for more than half of the world’s population.  Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, has been harvested in the Orient for as long as wheat in the West.  The earliest evidence of rice cultivation has been found in South Korea and dates to about 13,000 B.C., but rice probably originated in the foothills and plains around the Himalyan Mountains - the subspecies japonica developed in China, and indica in the Indian sub-continent.  Asian rice was brought to the Middle East sometime around 1000 B.C., and the most likely route of introduction in Europe was through Spain, conquered by the Moors in the 8th century A.D.  Although rice was known to the Romans, and mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History, it was only thought to have some medicinal properties and was not grown by them as a food source.  It was not until the 15th century that rice cultivation spread to Northern Italy, where the fertile swampy plains of the Po river valley provide suitable growing conditions.  In a letter written in 1475 the Duke of Milan claimed that from the one sack of rice he sent as a gift to the Duke of Ferrara 12 sacks could be harvested, if properly cultivated.  This impressive yield led to rice being quickly diffused throughout the region, but up until the mid-19th century only that one variety of rice- called Nostrale- was grown.  In 1839 a Jesuit priest, Padre Calleri, returning from the Phillipines imported 43 different rice varieties, and it was from this stock that Italians began to experiment with the varieties that could best be adapted for use in Northern Italy’s temperate climate.  

Italy is now the biggest producer of rice in Europe, and is most famous for Arborio rice that was created in 1946 from a cross of the Italian Vialone, and American Lady Wright varieties.  Arborio and other varieties that have since been developed like Baldo (1977)  and Carnoroli (1984) are all rice cultivars selected to absorb liquid when cooked,  and yet have both a firm bite and creaminess that makes the unique Italian dish Risotto so special.

In Northern Italy, particularly around the big rice producing areas, the grain naturally has become an important part of the diet.  However, as rice has never been cultivated in central Italy it was essentially unknown in Sorano until quite recently.  A Tuscan has never served me a rice dish, and Ivana remembers that she herself did not even try rice perhaps until as late as the 1970s.  Annetta recalls that rice could be obtained in Florence or Rome, but the first to have it in Sorano were those with the most “refined” tastes- the wealthy landowners.   Clara, who is my neighbor in town, originally comes from Milan, and it was she who turned me on to the glories of risotto.   Subsequently I had a lovely girlfriend from Milan, who never failed to bring a bag of risotto rice with her when she came to visit.   Nevertheless, I also very much enjoy Basmati rice from India.   My very good friend Reinier, a carpenter from Amsterdam, was involved for several years with Mara, a ceramicist from Sorano.  He would occasionally have me over for a delicious Indonesian Rijsttafel (Dutch for “rice table”) meal that he would serve with basmati.  I either have to go to Rome to stock up on the basmati, or wait for Reinier or his brother Stephen to bring me a few kilos with their car down from Amsterdam, but I now often will collect seasonal vegetables from the garden and make a simple meal of it served with a steaming bowl of the delicately flavored, fluffy rice.  One time I gave Ivana some basmati to try, and she has gotten hooked too, as she often asks me to bring a handful over whenever I stop by her apartment to visit. 

The cultivation of rice today is largely mechanized, but up through the 1950s work in the Italian rice fields involved large numbers of both men and women and continued from February through November.   Plowing with oxen and maintaining the irrigation canals, dykes and high banks of the fields was men’s work, but some of the most arduous tasks fell to the women- from the spreading of the manure to the hoeing of the fields after they had been ploughed.  The fields were seeded and flooded in the months of March and April.  The transplanting of rice plants and weeding was done between the months of May and June and was almost exclusively the work of women.  To weed in Italian is mondare and so women came to be called mondine.  Weeding required many more people than could be recruited locally so hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from surrounding areas were brought to the rice fields for the two month weeding period.   The mondine worked with large straw hats to shield them from the hot sun, and would be up to their knees in water, bent over for hours on end to weed the rice beds.  Working in teams, the mondine would sing as they worked, and not surprisingly they often sang about their virtual servitude and poor working conditions.  “Bella Ciao” is the best known of these songs, particularly as the lyrics were later altered and the song became the most popular anthem of the resistance during the Second World War.  

In the morning upon awaking

O bella, ciao!  bella, ciao!  bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!

In the morning upon awaking we must go to the rice-fields

And between the insects and the mosquitoes 

O bella, ciao!  bella, ciao!  bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!

And between the insects and the mosquitoes, a hard work I must perform. 

The boss standing tall with his club

O bella, ciao!  bella, ciao!  bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!

The boss standing tall with his club, and we bent at our hard work. 

O mamma mia, o what a torment

O bella, ciao!  bella, ciao!  bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!

O mamma mia, o what a torment, I have to cry for you each morn. 

But there will come a day that we all

O bella, ciao!  bella, ciao!  bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!

But there will come a day that we all will work in liberty  

Conditions in the 19th century were even more onerous, as the women were expected to work from before dawn until dusk, which at the height of summer meant well more than 12 hours a day.   Many of the mondine also had families, and the long workdays left them with no time to care for their children, clean or cook meals.   The plight of the mondine was considered to be particularly exploitative, and so other agricultural workers rallied around the women.  In 1906 the mondine, certainly drawing inspiration from the famous American May Day martyrs, went on strike from the rice fields to demand better work conditions.   


Eventually the demands of the women were met, and the eight-hour workday became law also in Italy.  The words of another tuneful song “Sono la Mondina” attests to the great determination of the women:  “I am the rice-weeder, I am the exploited one, I am the worker that will never waver… And if someone wishes to make war we will all unite to stop him.  We want peace on Earth, and stronger than canons are we.”