Behind the Scenes at One of Italy's Top Risotto Rice Producers
Is all rice created equal? To be perfectly honest, I thought that was the case until a recent visit to Acquerello farm in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, which grows a type of sought-after rice that many of the world's top chefs use in their risottos. Family owned and operated, Acquerello got its start in 1935, when Cesare Rondolino purchased the Torrone della Colombara farm in the province of Vercelli. That fertile land had been used for rice cultivation since the 16th century, so the decision to grow rice was made for Cesare from the start.
Cesare's son Piero joined him in 1972, and with a focus on the commodity market, they became the biggest rice producer in Italy. In 1992, the team became the brand that Acquerello is today, shifting their focus from industrial-scale production to an artisanal one, and producing just one variety of rice, called Carnaroli. Now Piero runs the business with his wife Maria Nava and his children Rinaldo, Umberto, and Anna.
Carnaroli is a medium-grained rice native to the Vercelli region and is considered by many to be the best rice for making risotto. It has a higher starch content and firmer texture, so it keeps its shape better and is more resistant to overcooking then the more common Arborio variety.
Focusing on growing just one variety of rice allows Acquerello to avoid the possibility of inadvertent hybridization. The rice is cultivated using organic farming methods and seeds are sown on the farm's 140 hectares each April. Harvest takes place in September and October, lasting a total of 25 days. We visited the Acquerello headquarters to see what happens to the rice after harvesting.
To start, the freshly harvested, unhulled grains are aged in steel temperature-controlled silos. 99% of the rice is aged for one and a half years, while the remaining 1% is aged for a whopping seven years. Maria Nava, who has been in charge of Acquerello's commercial development since 2009, explained that aging makes the proteins, starch, and vitamins in the grains less water soluble, which allows the grains to absorb more liquid and flavors when cooked while simultaneously improving the grains' consistency. This makes the grains less sticky and consequently less likely to bind together when cooked. "The seven-year old Reserve is the maximum amount rice can be aged before it stops getting significantly better in quality," says Nava.
After aging, the rice is sifted to filter out any grains that are abnormally shaped or otherwise defective. Acquerello produces 500 tons of Carnaroli rice a year, and while the rice sells for about double the price of other risotto rices, it has become the go-to choice for many of the world's top chefs. Fans include Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, and Marc Vetri, who praises the rice's consistency and texture.
After sifting, the grains are further processed in a patented "helix" machine, which separates the germ (the embryo of the grain that contains vitamins, minerals, and fiber) and the bran (the grain's outer skin), and polishes each grain to a pearly white. The germ is then reheated and slowly mixed back in to the white rice, where they are mixed together at a low temperature. The company claims that during this process, the germ melts and coats the grains, so that what is left is a white rice that contains additional nutrients.
The rice can be used, unsurprisingly, in risotto but it also lends itself well to other cooking methods. Maria Nava suggests trying it boiled, in rice salads, or in rice pudding. The price is steep compared to other risotto rice on the shelf, but there's a reason why chefs go weak in the knees for it. Pick it up at specialty shops like Dean & Deluca, Willams-Sonoma, or Eataly to see for yourself what the fuss is all about.