After the wonderful sweetness of Laura’s biscuits, for the fourth stop of our itinerary through Italian flavours we went back North landing in Piedmont, precisely in Biella, in order to discover how Zaccaria’s rice is produced.
I didn’t use the word “discover” by accident… I think that just a few of us really know what stands behind a rice box, which flooded expanses and painstaking work. It was really interesting to bone up on such an unknown world!
Who welcomed us, in the yard of the big farmhouse where the whole family lives, were Carlo Zaccaria’s mother and Argo, a very affectionate golden retriever who did the honors catalysing our attention while we were waiting for his master.
With Carlo, who for the time being is the only one among Zaccaria’s brothers to carry the family business forward, we left for a walk in the ricefield of the company, specifically in the areas where Sant’Andrea and Carnaroli rice are cultivated.
The landscape was definitely evocative: in the distance the Mount Rosa stood up, covered in snow and surrounded by Biella Alps, a darker cordon which framed the scene. The ricefields are located in an area at the feet of the mountains, called Baraggia, seemingly hard to cultivate but that actually lends to the rice an excellent quality – so that some of the varieties cultivated in that place are worth the Protected Designation of Origin qualification.
The pieces of land of Zaccaria’s company, which are around 210 hectars wide, are divided into many different paddyfields, more or less big, where different rice cultivars are produced: Carnaroli, Arborio, Sant’Andrea, Baldo (each of these has the PDO certificate), Red, Black and Armonia (this one is a crossbread of Basmati and Thaibonnet).
In former times (but it also happens nowadays in some parts of the world) the rice was transplanted, manually or with machinery. Now, on the contrary, around the first ten days of April the fields are sown with its grains, from which buds the plants sprout. Every “mother” plant, when it grows, generates itself some “children” plants, so that in the end you can have even 7 or 8 spikes for every grain you sowed – that’s the reason why it’s better to maintain a not too thick growing.
The ricefields, thanks to a canal and duct system, receive water from quite high mountain places and are almost always flooded – the pieces of land are articulated in different levels, connected one to the other with small waterfalls that maintain the optimal water level. This makes those places populated by frogs, which cheered our walk up with their uninterrupted croak…
After the seeding, the fields are constantly groomed and monitored, if necessary grading them, increasing the amount of water or “emptying” them in case of heavy rains, or moreover eradicating weeds which would spoil the harvest. Afterwards, hoping that the weather is clement and doesn’t play nasty tricks, in September the rice is ready to be reaped.
The first important thing is to make sure that the rice looses most part of the humidity that it holds when it’s harvested, so it’s put to dry and then kept into silos until the processing. Up to a little time ago, Zaccaria’s company used to outsource this stage to other rice mills of the area, but then Carlo decided to build a private plant, so that he could personally and constantly control every single stage of rice processing.
This is the point where you gape: in order to have the rice that we – final users – know, you really need a lot of transformations! Each of them is made by machines, which however are never left to their fate but are followed step by step by Carlo, who in some stages even wakes up in the night to go and check that everything goes well.
As regards the instrumentation of the company, all the tubes through which the rice grains flow are made of stainless steel (and not of painted iron, as it often happens in the industrial productions, which has the inconvenience of stripping off and rustying… so you can imagine what invisible particles you can find among the low-quality rice!). About the machines, it’s interesting to know that most of them is made in Italy, but with two infiltrators from Asia: the machine that finds and removes the pebbles is Chinese, while the one used to whiten Armonia rice comes from Japan! Among other things, some machines are modern, while others date back to 40/50 years ago and have only been modernized, maintaining a special appeal thanks to the wooden parts – wood supports the oscillations in a better way, so it’s necessary for some kinds of machinery.
The processing of rice starts with the husking, in other words the operation that allows to separate the husk form the grains, then it goes through many selections in order to remove the grains that are too thin or too small for that type of rice, the green ones, the broken ones, the faulty ones and also, as said before, to eliminate any small rock. The following transformation is the whitening, obtained by making the rice pass through four machines that quickly centrifuge it “smoothing it down” against a slab, without causing an excessive overheating that would invalidate its quality.
Carlo even has a polishing machine, but he never uses it because, thanks to the previous processing, he gets an almost perfect product.
In the end, the processed rice is wrapped up in different kind of packaging, vacuum or not, and put into boxes. Notice that Carlo personally takes care also of the graphics of the boxes: he doesn’t lack for anything!
At this point the product is ready to be marketed, indeed we loaded the trunk of the car with kilos and kilos of different kinds of rice, because Paola had depleted the stock in her shop “La Delizia”.
Before leaving Russi-bound, we couldn’t let us off tasting it ourselves… so we went to a very elegant restaurant, where we could try an excellent ocean perch risotto, made with Zaccaria’s rice. It really has the typical characteristics of PDO productions from Baraggia: it’s a rice that stays compact, thick and less gluey than others, remaining al dente for longer.
If you want to taste Zaccaria’s rice too, in all its varieties, you can as always find it in Paola’s shop, both sold packed and in the cuisine’s dishes!