ISOLA DELLA SCALA, Italy (Reuters) - Nine heavy wooden rods drop slowly into holes carved in a row in a massive marble block to peel off paddy rice in the same way used for centuries at an old water mill in northern Italy.
Slightly brownish partly milled rice, the result of 10 hours of milling and sifting, used to be a staple food for the poor. Now the rice is snapped up by foodies who believe it has a higher nutritional value than milled rice and makes perfect risotto.
The centuries-old method preserves vitamins and mineral elements contained in rice better than modern technology, say members of the Ferron family who own the Vecia Pila mill built around 1650 in the north Italian region of Veneto.
Using vintage tools is also a smart marketing move. The bucolic old mill and a next-door restaurant, run by the same family and offering various types of rice-based food, draw crowds of tourists and risotto-lovers.
The Ferrons are part of a growing number of Italian farmers and manufacturers -- from wine and cheese makers to bespoke jewelry producers -- who believe making small amounts of top quality and high price products is a better way to win consumers at home and abroad than succumbing to mass-market competition.
Export figures show that such a strategy works, especially for high quality Italian food with guaranteed labels of origin, such as IGP and DOP. Those attract consumers willing to pay above average for healthy and tasty products.
Exports of famous Italian cheeses Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padana jumped 26 percent in 2010, outpacing a 13 percent rise in total Italian food exports to 27.7 billion euros ($37.4 billion), according to Italy's biggest farmers group Coldiretti data based on information from national statistics agency ISTAT.
Output of Italian extra virgin olive oil with the DOP top quality label more than doubled over six years to 10,400 tonnes -- or just under 2 percent of a total average annual olive oil production in Italy -- in 2010, driven by growing export and domestic demand, industry figures showed.
Back at the Pila Vecia mill, it takes a day to make 80-90 kg of old-style partly milled rice, while a modern technology also used by the Ferrons allows them to produce nearly 100 times more at about 8,800 kg of milled white rice a day.
But the efforts to keep the tradition going pay off. The Ferrons sell partly milled rice at 3.50 euros a kg, against 2 euros for a kg of white milled rice.
Italian rice is a niche product by definition: its output is small on the global scale and traditional Italian varieties, such famous carnaroli, are used mostly to make creamy risotto rather than any other dish.
Italy is Europe's biggest rice producer but its annual output of about 1.5 million tonnes of paddy rice is dwarfed compared with the global production of nearly 700 million tonnes, mostly coming from Asia.
Italian rice growers and millers say offering a high quality product is the only way for them to compete with Asian rivals who bring by far larger volumes of cheaper rice into the European Union, the main export market for Italy.
Italy sells abroad about half of its rice output. On the home turf, competition is tough between Italian rice growers.
Producers of a rare rice variety called Vialone Nano Veronese have adopted stringent rules for cultivation and milling to win the IGP protected geographical indication label which guarantees high quality.
"We want to distinguish ourselves from the mass-market product. We want to make a niche product which has no rivals," Ernesto Artegiani, chairman of the Consortium for Protection of Vialone Nano Veronese Rice, told Reuters at a rice field near the small town of Isola della Scala, the local rice center.
About 1,100 tonnes of the IGP-marked Vialone Nano Veronese is produced a year, less than 0.1 percent of the national output, as it is grown only on 200 hectares around Isola della Scala in the Verona province.
As demand is growing, the Consortium aims to extend high quality requirements to almost all of 1,700 hectares of land in the province where ordinary Vialone Nano rice is cultivated to boost the IGP rice output to 7,200-8,100 tonnes, Artegiani said.
Artegiani and his fellow rice growers also want to keep alive a part of history and culture of the rural Veneto which has become heavily industrialized over the past century.
"The old mill and the artisan (milling) method allow us to stay close to our origins," said Alessio Ferron, 34, who represents the fifth generation of rice millers in the Ferron family. "For us rice is our life, our passion."
($1 = 0.741 Euros)
Reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova, editing by Paul Casciato