The rice fields of nothern Piedmont: the “squared sea”.


Have you ever wondered why Risotto is one of the most iconic Italian recipes?

First of all Risotto is mostly a concept rather than a recipe. It’s a cooking technique and that is why you can make it in a million different ways, some of which are “standards”, you might say, while some others are fully open to your creativity. You can make a mushroom risotto or a tomato risotto or a saffron risotto and even a strawberry risotto…just pick the ingredient you like and make your own very personal one.  You just need to respect the cooking process and that’s it.

Sunset over the rice fields of Vercelli. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Despite being found everywhere in the Country, risotto is mostly well developed in Northern Italy. The reason behind such fact is that Italy is the largest rice producer in Europe, and the Piedmont region is Italy’s rice bowl. Approximately 8.5 kg of rice are consumed per head/year by the Italians, mostly the Carnaroli and Arborio varieties, while 52% of the overall production is exported. Beside risotto, rice is used for dozens other recipes such as the rice croquettes from Rome (Supplì) or the orange-looking “Arancine” from Sicily, as well rice timbales, stuffed vegetables and so on…

Visiting the rice fields around Vercelli is an amazing experience, also pretty different from other rice growing areas such as the Asian massive cultivations that are very often laying on terraces along the hill slopes. The rice fields of Italy are mostly located in the Piedmont Region, in the northern side of it, in the area called the “Rice plains” (Risaie).

Rice fields from the Overlook of Cantavenna. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

The view is very unique: if you cross the area by car during the flooding season (rice grows in water) you could have the impression that the road is running over a big lake. The rice fields are so extensive that from June to October the villages and the rice farms emerge from the water in a  distance, as if they are suspended over a lake.

However, if you see the rice fields from above (from a plane, an air ballon or simply from a panoramic terrace) the view changes and you can see the so called “squared sea” (il mare a quadretti). In fact, while the rice fields are flooded, the only thing you see from the sky, together with water, are the borders between one field and the next, thus making the whole rice plain of northern Piedmont looking like an ocean divided into small squares (rectangles, actually).

Rice fields in Piedmont from the sky. Photo from the web

The cultivation is due to the presence of the longest river of Italy, called Po, which meanders from its source on the Mount Viso, all the way to its delta, 650 km further down, on the Adriatic see, dramatically close to Venice. The Po attracts to itself all the smaller rivers and streams running from the Alps, thus making water largely available in the area. Moreover, a set of canals have been constructed to direct the water flows to the rice fields.

Visiting the rice plain of northern Piedmont is an amazing experience. Most of the visitors to this region of Italy are attracted by its vast wine production, however the area has much more to offer. We would probably not have any Risotto without this rice plain, neither we could have the astonishing views over it.

The Ricetto (Medival village) of Brusasco. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Yesterday I went to visit a friend of mine who lives in the area and she took me around on the hills spanning from Torino to Casale Monferrato. We had a nice stop at the Ricetto of Brusasco which is a small medieval village dramatically located on the top of a hill overlooking the woods (still inhabited despite its remoteness), and then to a recently built panoramic terrace called the “Overlook of Cantavenna”. From such viewpoint you can see the meanders of the Po River, the rice plains and the Alps in a distance.

The Ricetto (Medival village) of Brusasco. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Do not forget that many rice farms also welcome guests and are happy to disclose their secrets as well as some recipes for making good risotto. My suggestion for you is to plan an excursion to the rice plains also if you are visiting Torino and the amazing Region of Piedmont.

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