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Italy's simmering rice threat
At Rinaldo Rondalino's family farm at Colombara in the Po Valley, not far from Turin, the rice fields are deserted now.

It is mid-winter in this part of the world. There is a hard frost on the ground, even in mid-afternoon.

Some chefs say the best risotto is made with superfino Italian rice Rinaldo says that a few months ago, it was very different.

"During the harvest - that starts at the beginning of October - we enjoy inside our hearts very much because it is the end of our year," he said.

"This year was probably the best harvest of the last 10 years."

They have been growing rice around here for hundreds of years. In the old school - where farm workers' children used to get a basic education - the register is still open at a date in June 1950.

The school, the homes, the workshops remain, gathering dust. As do the dead - in the farm's own crumbling cemetery.

But the work once done by 1,000 workers now occupies just seven.

Radical change

Rinaldo Rondalino and his father Piero have modernised hard. They have sold off half the land, concentrated on top-quality organic rice, and cut out the middlemen, so they are in control of the whole process from seed to packet.

But Rinaldo says many Italian farmers are in for a shock when free trade hits them in 2007. I think risotto will become a niche Roberto Fontana, chef "It is a radical change that all the agriculture in Europe and in Italy too has to understand.

"One of the important problems here in Italy for the rice cultivation is that most of the agriculture doesn't understand what could be the future. If they don't learn how to respond to the new reality, they will probably go out of business."

Italians do love their rice. It is part of their history, their culture, their culinary tradition.

Rossini's opera Tancredi even includes an aria dedicated to the stuff. But the open market is no respecter of tradition.

Even Roberto Fontana, whose restaurant in Milan serves 23 types of the dish, is worried.

Price rise

He says quality Italian rice is the key to the perfect risotto.

"To prepare risotto you need superfino rice," he says. "I think risotto will become a niche. And the problem will be perhaps that it will be more expensive. I'm very afraid because of the price. I think Italian rice will be too expensive to compete with the American rice."

It is, as they say, an ill-wind that blows no good. Cheap rice imports - from the US and Thailand in particular - could cut supermarket prices in Italy by as much as half, even if they do force up the price of Roberto's premium risotto varieties.

But what is good news for rice-eaters could be bad news for rice farmers - and also for those who love the unique vista of Italy's rice-growing wetlands.

If the rice fields do go, the landscape of northern Italy will never be quite the same again.
MGR Archive 11.1.2005
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