Meet the maker: the Lombardian rice farmer preserving Italian traditions

On the outskirts of Milan, organic rice farmer Francesco Bossi, 55, is championing one of Lombardy’s most revered products.

By Julia Buckley
Published 14 Mar 2021, 08:00 GMT
Carnaroli rice is one of Lombardy's most revered products and is part of an age-old tradition ...

Carnaroli rice is one of Lombardy's most revered products and is part of an age-old tradition of cultivation.

Photograph by Diana Franceschin

Ask Francesco Bossi about his favourite Lombard pasta dish and he almost snorts with laughter. “We’re all about rice,” he says. “Pasta is a tradition that’s been imported.”

Lombardy’s flat plains watered by the Po river give it the kind of microclimate you find in parts of Asia. 

“You need lots of water and hot summers — the temperature needs to be above 12C, even at night, otherwise the rice stops growing. The entire country has the right temperatures, but only we have the water,” he says proudly.

Francesco comes from a family of ‘contadini’ (technically ‘peasants’, though the word sparks reverence in Italy) from Milan — Italy’s second-biggest agricultural city, he points out. Despite its industrial heritage and modern expansion, there are still some 40 farms within the city limits. Traditionally, the Bossis were vegetable farmers, but Francesco returned to his Lombardy roots by adding rice, too. Three years ago, he downsized to a 25-acre property in Ronchetto delle Rane, an agricultural village south of the centre. 

“These used to be the country houses of Milan’s aristocracy,” he says. “One started out as a Borromeo villa.” The Borromeos were one of Milan’s most influential families. He grows carnaroli rice — “one of the best for Italian cuisine,” he explains. “It remains more al dente, it’s the right size — not too fat or too small. It’s the best for risotto.”

So how does one grow Lombardy’s most revered product on the former farm of Milan’s elite? “Everyone adapts to their own terrain,” he explains. Some sow the rice wet, others dry. But since he’s organic, Francesco sows “a strange way”. 

“In autumn, I plant the fields with grass, grow it until April and then sow the rice in the dry ground. I cut the grass, flood the field and leave the grass to ferment. Once the rice sprouts I flood it again, and keep it like that until a month before harvest.” In November or December, he cuts the rice “like wheat”. 

Francesco sells to a few shops in Milan, and in January this year opened a little shop at the farm. He’s also planning on adding some accommodation for guests, branching out into the booming agriturismo business.

Is it a big responsibility growing Lombardy’s premier product? “Mostly I feel a responsibility to produce a healthy product,” replied Francesco. “As for the rest — well, we’re in Italy, and carnaroli rice is especially appreciated here. But I think all farmers with ethics feel the same.”

And his favourite meal? It has to be a saffron-infused risotto alla Milanese, a dish so plain that everything rests on the quality of the rice. “It has to be,” Francesco explains, simply. “I’m tied to my city.”

Francesco stands next to a mountain of raw rice, ready to convert it into one of the region's premier products.

Photograph by Diana Franceschin

Three Lombard rice dishes to try

1. Involtini di Verza
These stuffed cabbage leaves, also called capunet, originate in Bergamo, and they’re Lombardy’s answer to stuffed pasta. The mix is made of minced beef, pork, prosciutto and rice, plus Parmesan and egg to knit it all together, then it’s all wrapped up in a cabbage leaf. 

2. Riso alla pitocca
Chicken and rice is a universal dish, and Lombardy’s version is a stodgy, pseudo risotto. It supposedly got its name in the 17th century from beggars who were given the dish (‘pitocca’ derives from the Greek word for ‘poor’). The chicken is first browned off in a pan before wine, stock and rice are added; the whole thing is then left to simmer and reduce.

3. Ossobuco alla Milanese
Sure, this dish is all about the slow-cooked, bone-in veal stew topped with lemony, garlicky gremolata, but what sets one ossobuco apart from another is the risotto it’s served with. Carnaroli is al dente enough to avoid getting too mushy.

Published in the Lombardy 2020 guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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