The origins of rice in Italy

When asked about rice (Oryza sativa) in Italy, your answer will probably be: risotto. Yes, it is a dish made with riso ('rice'), but where exactly did that rice originally came from?
Rice was first introduced in Greece following Alexander the Great’s expedition to Asia, who went as far as the banks of the Indus, in about 320 BC. The Arabs introduced rice in the south of the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century.

Later, rice may have been introduced to Italy by early Venetian commerce, often personified by Marco Polo (1254-1324), although no written document about these possible introductions survives.

There is evidence of rice growing in Portugal in the thirteenth century and it was re-introduced by the Portuguese navigators after the opening of the route to the Indies in the late fifteenth century. Rice probably spread to from Portugal to Italy, first in the Kingdom of Naples, followed by the wetlands of Tuscany, near Pisa, in 1468, and then in the plain of the river Po, where the crop became definitively established.

Rice cultivation expanded to ca. 20,000 ha in the area around Milan until the 1700s. At that time, the only rice cultivated in Italy was Nostrale, a variety susceptible to rice blast (Magnaporthe oryzae).

To guarantee the continued rice cultivation that was seriously threatened by this fungal disease, new varieties were introduced from China and Japan at the beginning of 19th century. These varieties were characterized by their high yield and resistance to rice blast.

As a consequence, five novel Italian rice varieties were cultivated in Italy in 1872: Ostiglia, Bertone, Novarese, Francone, and Giapponese.

So, where did these rice varieties originate. Did they come from China, from India, From Japan (as can be deduced from the name of the Giapponese variety), or even from another source?

Recent scientific evidence point to a genetic affinity to China's northern provinces, such as Hebei, Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang Provinces[1]. This makes sense because the climatic conditions there are relatively similar to those of Italian rice cultivation regions.

Although the tales such as Marco Polo’s contribution to the introduction of rice from China to Italy may never be fully confirmed, results from this study provide solid genetic evidence to confirm the close linkage between Italian and Chinese rice varieties.

[1] Cai et al: The Puzzle of Italian Rice Origin and Evolution: Determining Genetic Divergence and Affinity of Rice Germplasm from Italy and Asia in PLoS One - 2013. See here.

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