Meet the maker: the Tuscan rice farmer using sustainable techniques

Having taken her family’s Tuscan rice farm organic, Ariane Lotti is committing to even more sustainable production techniques.

By Phoebe Hunt
Published 21 Jan 2023, 08:00 GMT
Ariane Lotti runs Tenuta San Carlo in Tuscany.

Ariane Lotti runs Tenuta San Carlo in Tuscany.

Photograph by Lucrezia Ficetti

“When you think about Tuscany, you don’t necessarily think about rice production,” says Ariane Lotti as she drives around the rice paddies on her family farm. It’s September, a couple of weeks before harvest time, and the rice has grown tall and golden over the summer. 

Tenuta San Carlo is organic, so Ariane worries about worms and insects attacking the rice. Still, there are enough natural predators in the water: frogs, crayfish, snakes, lizards and birds. Down towards the beach, wild boar and deer roam free in the protected pine forests. The coastal region of Maremma hasn’t always been this lovely, though. Until the malaria-filled marshes were drained in the 1930s, agriculture was virtually nonexistent in the lowlands. Ariane’s great-grandfather, Achille, brought his young family here from Northern Italy in 1936; 30 years later, his son Ennio took a gamble and tried growing rice on the family plot. It worked, and soon others followed suit; there are now half a dozen rice producers in the area. 

When Ariane and her sister Samantha took over the 1,200-acre farm in 2003, they realised their options were either to sell it or for one of them to move here and manage it properly. “We were born and raised in New York City, but we came here a lot as children, and we’re very connected to the land,” says Ariane. Having given up her job in Washington, DC as a lobbyist for sustainable and organic farmers, she began transitioning the farm to certified organic rice production, relying on crop rotation, mechanical weeding and cover crops. 

“My neighbours told me it would never work, but now some of them are going organic, too,” Ariane says. She’s also testing out regenerative methods, which involve going almost two years without disturbing the soil and are, Ariane says, “absolutely the future of agricultural production”.

The rice is gathered with a specialist combine harvester in late September, a time of optimum humidity. The kernels are dried on site before being processed at a stone mill in Northern Italy, which removes the tough bran. The farm currently grows carnaroli and ribe varieties. The former is perfect for risotto, with a large kernel and a starchy centre. Ribe, meanwhile, is more versatile — “a mid-length grain that’s as good for rice salads as it is for desserts”, according to Ariane. 

She’s assisted by around half a dozen staff, some of whom live on the farm with partners and children, so while the operation has changed since those first grains were planted six decades ago, family is still at its heart. 

Tenuta San Carlo rice can be bought in shops across Italy or at the farm, which also offers accommodation.

How to use it

Wild asparagus and herb risotto
Nettles, bitter greens and wild asparagus grow along the sandy marshes throughout Maremma. They work perfectly in a creamy risotto of carnaroli rice enriched with parmesan and plenty of butter.

Budino di riso
A traditional Tuscan rice pudding with a little lemon zest, encased in thin shortcrust pastry, this dessert originated in Siena and is now found in bakeries across the region.

Supplì Maremmani
Risotto leftovers are used to make supplì, Rome’s equivalent of Sicilian arancini. Ariane adapts the classic recipe with a filling of pecorino or buffalo milk cheese from nearby cheesemaker La Maremmana.

Published in Issue 18 (winter 2022/23) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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