Tradition and quality keeps Italian rice popular

Tue Oct 11, 2011 6:01am EDT
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By Svetlana Kovalyova

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.   Continued...