25 January 2015

LIFE: Rice is Nice but Risotto is Better Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy - The Milan Expo is set to open on 1 May, 2015. It’s a universal exposition and as the last time Milan hosted a World Expo was back in 1906, it’s big deal. The theme of the Expo is Feeding the Planet, and that got me thinking. I wonder if there ia anyone who contributed more to the idea of feeding the planet than Leonardo da Vinci. With a single mechanical design, he changed Italy, and if not the planet, at least Europe.
Milano, Italy

In 1482 da Vinci wrote to Ludovico Sforza, soon to be Duke of Milan, looking for work. Knowing Sforza was being threatened by the French, da Vinci said he could construct bridges, underground passages, armored wagons and even cannons that hurl small stones.  Sforza hired him.    

da Vinci proved to be an asset and when the French backed off, the Duke appointed him to organize and update the irrigation system within the dukedom.  After a careful examination of the waterways, Leonardo got to work. He designed a hinged watertight gate, a flood gate that could be used to control the amount of water released to irrigate the flat fields.  And then they planted rice.
 Rice Fields of Northern Italy

Today, more than 500 years later, they still grow rice in Lombardy and Piedmont. In fact there are areas where the rice fields stretch out as far as the eye can see.  And they still use the flood gate system designed Leonardo to irrigate the fields.

There are more than a dozen varieties of rice produced here, and to be honest about it, at times it is a bit overwhelming for an ex-Uncle Ben-er like me. But if I ask the right questions, the Italian mammas are always ready to help out. They seemed to know a lot about rice. 
Mondine at Work

I think some of my neighbors in Lombardy may have been “mondine”, which is what the women who worked in the rice fields were called.  The word “mondine” comes from “mondare”, a word that isn’t used in Italian any more, but it used to mean “to clean”. And up until the 1950’s, clean is what the women did in those fields, if you consider weeding a form of cleaning. 

Their job was a seasonal one, from the end of April until June. In June  the paddy fields were flooded with water so that the rice plants would not undergo severe temperature variations going from day into night. The job consisted of setting rice plants in the paddy fields and then going back to that field once the plants had taken hold and clearing it of weeds.  It was difficult work and something that only the women in really poor families did in order to earn money.
 Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice

In a publicity photos for the 1949 Italian movie Bitter Rice, a buxom Silvana Mangano is shown standing in a flooded rice field. She plays the part of a young woman who works in the rice paddies of northern Italy. She looks sexy in her tight shorts and torn black stockings, with her hair falling over smoldering dark eyes. You might even get the impression that picking rice was a fun and 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. They would spend up to 12 hours a day, bent over in water up to their knees.  They did wear long black stockings, not to look sexy, but to protect their legs. They also wore big straw hats to protect them from the hot summer sun and the swarms of mosquitoes that constantly buzzed around them. From below, snakes of all sizes, lizards and slippery green frogs slithered through their legs as they worked.
 Bitter Rice

In the film, and in real life, the women were migrant workers traveling by bus from one northern Italian 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 sometimes sat on an elevated chair like a tennis umpire, and other times walked behind the woman poking at them with his cane if they weren’t working fast enough.

 When the women got close to the end of a field, the overseer would call out and some of them would move away from the row in order to leave a space for the 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.

The women would often sing as they worked. The songs they sang have often been considered political but they actually were not. The women sang primarily to keep their spirits up, to take their minds off of the horrid working conditions, the heat, the bugs and mosquitoes and the slimy creatures under the water, and to lament the years they were wasting working in the fields. 
On days like today, when it’s raining outside 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.
Days in the Rice Paddies, Nights in the Cascina
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 Italian mammas I run into in the grocery store, the very same ones who seem to know an awful lot about rice.

You can see life size models of 130 machines reproduced from da Vinci drawings at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan. It is the largest science and technology museum in Italy and it is dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci.  Some of his designs are truly fantastic: flying machines, tanks, submarines, cranes, and even robots. The man was well ahead of his time.

Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia
"Leonardo da Vinci"
Via San Vittore 21,
20123 Milano
Monday - Friday: 9.30 - 17.00
Saturday and holidays: 9.30 - 18.30


1 comment:

  1. Growing rice is hardworking indeed, but this is a product I cannot imagine living without.