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food / travel

In Sicily, Rice Farming Returns After Mussolini Had Dried Up Cultivation

First brought to Sicily by Arab conquerors, rice farming was eliminated over the past century for Italian political reasons. Now a local "farmer-archeologist" has brought it back to satisfy local desires of Sicilian star chefs.

A traditional Sicilian
A traditional Sicilian
Laura Anello

LEONFORTE - For the first time in a century, rice has returned to Sicily.

Angelo Manna, owner of the Agrirape farm in this central Sicilian town, has managed to launch an operation of archeological farming. "Rice arrived in Italy and Europe via Sicily, with Arab merchants," Manna says. "They brought saffron too. It was a precious spice and it still grows here."

Manna adds, only half jokingly: "Milanese saffron risotto, should be called Sicilian. All of it is ours!"

Despite rice's famous requirements of wet and marshy lands - not exactly common on the relatively bare and dry Mediterranean island - Manna has tracked its past presence in Sicily through the memories of elderly locals and archived landlord registers.

Now, Manna and his father Giuseppe have succeeded in growing their rice with a half-dry cultivation system, gathering the first harvest earlier this month. The land is kept always wet, as it is for vegetables, but is not flooded.

The first seven quintals produced were sent to the Calabria region where the seeds would be milled using a rice huller to remove the chaff (the outer husks of the grain). This harvest has already been almost completely sold out. Chefs cannot wait to serve up 100% Made in Sicily, arancini, the fried rice balls which are among the most famous dishes from the island. The balls of rice are stuffed with ragout or butter and prosciutto – in newer recipes even with spinach, salmon or chocolate - and then fried.

"Zero-kilometer" Sicilian cuisine

Indeed, it was Sicilian chef Carmelo Floridia, owner of the Locanda Gulfi in the town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, near Ragusa, who inspired Angelo and Giuseppe Manna. "Two years ago, (Floridia) said he would have loved to cook only with food from his land, but unfortunately there was no Sicilian rice," says Fabrizio Carrera, director of the gastronomic website Cronachedigusto. "I'm not a a fanatic of "kilometer-zero" food, but I appreciate the success in this farming, cultural and historical challenge."

Angelo Manna is proud indeed. He points to documents he received from Roberto Paternò Castello, heir of a noble family who owned vast tracts of land near the city of Catania. "In the 17th and 18th centuries, Sicilians grew so much rice that they exported it," Manna says,

Otherwise, how could rice have become the main ingredient of some of the most traditional Sicilian recipes? It is still not clear how the cultivation disappeared. According to some locals, the first Italian Prime Minister, Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour had halted the cultivation of the Sicilian rice after Italian unification, looking to avoid any competitor to the rice of his native Piedmont region in the north.

Surely, after unification, the new government forbid cultivation close to populated areas, in order to fight malaria epidemics. This decision caused a setback for Sicilian farmers who used to live near the fields. Later, Fascist leader Benito Mussolini destroyed the rice cultivation for good, when he ordered the complete drainage of the lands. Paradoxically, Mussolini himself baptized the different kinds of rice, with Fascist names: Apollo, Balilla, and Roma. The latter, in fact, has been the most successful of the various strains that the Manna family managed to cultivate in their new project.

Read the original article in Italian

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