Italian flavors: Baraggia Biellese and Vercellese Rice
- WTI Magazine #112 Feb 16, 2019
Riso di Baraggia Biellese e Vercellese has almost mythical origins. Not much is clear, but what is certain is that rice arrived in La Baraggia, and the Vercelli area and Italy more generally, in successive waves. Traces of rice cultivation can be found since the 8-9th century after Christ.
Shepherds migrating from the low to the high plains carried bags of rice with them as they crossed the wetland areas on the way to Alpine pastures. How they had obtained it is not known with certainty. It may have been from someone who had met with Arabs on the roads of Occitania, or the first rice farmers, in the Camargue.
The shepherds threw the rice into the marshland in April and then went up to the mountain pastures; when they returned in late September, early October, it was ready for harvest. This is the earliest mention of rice growing in these lands. Aside from the rather mysterious gesture of sowing in the marshes, an entire world gradually began to develop from scratch: the world of the rice fields.
The Benedictine monks, unlike the migrating shepherds, learned to cultivate rice by creating specially made basins in which the water could flow. They realised that the Vercelli plain was perfectly suited to this type of cultivation, by the fact that it slopes away from the Alps in the west. In a resolution of 1669, the Municipal Council of Salussola affirms that “the rice fields” were created because the land was not suitable for anything other than sowing rice.
The diversity of La Baraggia and its rice were described for about 50 years in the “Giornale di Risicoltura” (Journal of Rice Growing), published monthly from 1912 to 1952 by the former Rice Growing Research Institute in Vercelli, which featured numerous technical and scientific articles on the characteristics of the Baraggia area and the rice produced there.
In 1931, the Institute acquired a rice-growing company in the municipality of Villarboit, using it as a research centre to improve specific aspects of production in the Baraggia area.
A magazine entitled “Il Riso” (“Rice”) was launched in 1952, which continued to promote the special characteristics of the rice produced in the area through a variety of articles.
In morphological and physiological terms, the rice plants grown in La Baraggia have a less developed plant foliage than that seen in the same varieties in other cultivation areas.
The crops reaches maturity with a reduction in the time required to complete the reproductive phase. The frequent temperature inversions, caused by winds coming from the mountains, cause the grains to develop and reach maturity more rapidly.
These environmental conditions give the rice grains a more compact cellular tissue, greater translucency and a smaller volume, weight and length than attained by the same varietal type in other areas.
The production figures are normally lower than those obtained in more favourable environments, but this is one of the factors behind the improvement in the quality of the rice, acclaimed and widely recognised by consumers.
When cooked, Riso di Baraggia Biellese e Vercellese has a superior grain texture and is less sticky than the same product from other areas.
Since the 19th century, the reputation acquired over the years by the refined rice produced in La Baraggia is that of a product known by consumers to retain its firmness after cooking.
This reputation is related to the undisputed quality of the rice varieties selected in former times and cultivated by the rice farmers of La Baraggia, which were subsequently also adopted for cultivation and consumption in other rice-growing regions and areas.
Riso di Baraggia Biellese e Vercellese is a unique product that owes its excellent characteristics to the ancient skills and efforts of hard-working farmers and, above all, to the precious water that nourishes and protects it. A waterfall descends directly from Monte Rosa and, through ingeniously channelling, comes to rest on the fields of La Baraggia.
The use of fertilisers should be aimed at obtaining a healthy and perfectly ripe product, and nitrate fertilisers and those containing heavy metals are prohibited.
Treatment of the crops with fungicides or insecticides must be done at least 40 days before harvesting.
The seed sown to produce the crops must be certified by the E.N.S.E. (National Seed Certification Body), to ensure varietal purity and the absence of fungal parasites, as well as germinability. The rough rice must be dried using means that avoid or minimise contamination of the grain husks by fuel residues debris or foreign odours.
While the unmilled rice is in storage, the farmer is obliged to take every possible precaution to prevent outbreaks of insect or fungal parasites and abnormal fermentation.
For the preparation of brown rice or further refinement of the products, the operations permitted include hulling or husking, a process which removes the outer husks from the rice grains, followed by subsequent selection operations.
The operations permitted for the preparation of refined rice include refining or polishing, a process that removes the cellular strips of the pericarp from the surface of the rice grains by abrasion. The refining processes must, however, ensure that the grains have no micro-fracture damage.
The Protection Consortium monitors compliance with the requirements of the specific production rules to guarantee the product and the milling and processing operations.
The Riso di Baraggia Biellese e Vercellese protected designation of origin is reserved to those food products that comply with the conditions and requirements set out in the production rules and designate the rice product obtained through the processing of rough rice or paddy as “brown”, “white” and “parboiled” rice.
The cultivation, harvesting, milling and processing area is located in the provinces of Biella and Vercelli, in the north-east of Piedmont. Each stage of the production process must be monitored by the inspection body, which keeps records of the incoming and outgoing products in each phase.
Packaging operations can only be carried out under the direct supervision of the body authorised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to monitor “Baraggia Biellese e Vercellese” PDO Rice. To be released for consumption, the packaging of the Riso di Baraggia Biellese e Vercellese PDO product must display the full name of the variety grown in the territory and not that of other similar varieties.
The Local Area
La Baraggia, in the provinces of Biella and Vercelli, lies between the river Sesia, the Elvo torrent and the Biella-Gattinara highway, in an area of Piedmont that gradually descends from the foothills of the Monte Rosa Prealps to the northern outskirts of Vercelli.
Rice was proposed as a pioneer reclamation crop to break up the hard clay soils of La Baraggia. It was the only plant capable of improving the land and, at the same time, providing the farmers with high-quality harvests.
The water used is pure, rushing water from Monte Rosa and the nearby mountains, which, when channelled by hydraulic engineering, floods the plain, bringing with it nutrients that give the Baraggia rice varieties their particular features and make them unequalled in terms of quality and organoleptic characteristics.
The area specified for Riso di Baraggia Biellese e Vercellese PDO is composed of 28 municipalities in the provinces of Biella and Vercelli. In all, 25,000 hectares are cultivated with rice.These municipalities are part of a much larger area known as La Baraggia.
Consorzio di tutela del Riso di Baraggia Biellese e Vercellese