SARONNO, Italy –There is an advertisement for an exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions playing on the message board down at the Saronno train station. The exhibit is being held at the Castle in Vigevano and will be there until 5 April 2010. What are on display are the things he invented in the late 1400’s when he was working for Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan.
Some of the things he invented were truly fantastic: flying machines, tanks, submarines, cranes, tanks and even robots. So what does this have to do with food? Actually a lot. One of the things that Leonardo designed was a hinged watertight gate, a flood gate that became part of the canal system he designed to irrigate the flat fields of northern Italy which belonged to the Duke of Milan. And then they planted rice.
Today, more than 500 years later, they still grow rice in Lombardy. There are more than a dozen varieties of rice produced here, and frankly it can be a bit overwhelming for an ex-Uncle Ben-er like me. But I ask, and the Italian Mamma’s are always ready to help out. They seem to know a lot about rice.
In a publicity photos for the 1949 Italian movie Bitter Rice, the story of a young woman who works in the rice paddies of Lombardy, a buxom Silvana Mangano is shown standing in a flooded rice field wearing tight shorts and torn black stockings, her hair falling over smoldering dark eyes. She looks sexy and you might get the impression that picking rice was a romantic thing to do.
In reality, the women who worked in the rice fields didn’t have much time to think about looking sexy as they were constantly being assaulted - both above and below the water line. From above, the hot summer sun beat down on their heads while swarms of mosquitoes buzzed around them in a feeding frenzy. From below, snakes of all sizes, lizards and slippery green frogs slithered through their legs.
In the film and in real life, the women were migrant workers traveling by bus from one rice cooperative to another. They slept in specially built dormitories, spending months planting, weeding and harvesting rice. They worked in rows, moving backwards, controlled by an overseer who sat high on a chair like a tennis umpire. When the women got close to the end of a field, the overseer would call out and some of them would move in order to leave a space for the little critters (which had been driven back as the women progressed down the field) to escape. They said the water churned like it was boiling as the frogs and snakes desperately scrambled to find a way out.
On days like today, when it’s foggy and gray and I’m in my cozy kitchen stirring up a fragrant saffron gold risotto Milanese for lunch, I think about Leonardo. I hope he knows the systems he created and the canals he laid out to irrigate those rice paddies are still in use. And I think about those women who traveled from rice paddy to rice paddy and made Italy what it is today, the largest rice producer in Europe.
It wasn’t until after World War II that they mechanized the rice fields and the women went home, got married and became respectable Signoras. Actually it wouldn’t surprise me if they were the same women I run into in the grocery store, the very same ones who seem to know an awful lot about rice.
Photo: Risotto alla Milanese; Silvano Mangano
And thanks to the reader who sent this link to the exhibit: www.leoanardoevigevano.it