The early days of September found me crisscrossing the landscape of Northern Italy in a small bus on an Autumn Buyer’s Tour, visiting artisanal food and wine producers, in search of rare and exceptional culinary finds to share with our Sickles customers. Each producer, farmer, or family that we visited had a compelling story to tell and a unique product to introduce.
Early in our trip, we took a drive to the magical Po Valley in the Vercelli district of the culinary mecca, Piemonte. Our little group of five buyers and two guides paused for lunch at the charming Osteria del Vecchio Asilo, in one of the many picturesque villages in the region. We dined on course after course of remarkable dishes created from the rice grown at Cascina Veneria, the largest rice producing estate in all of Europe. Fulvio, the manager of the factory, and our gracious guide for the day, walked us through all of the courses, describing each rice dish, from rice timbale to risotto and rice pudding, all made from different varieties of grains grown on the 700 hectare property that we would soon be visiting. We were even treated to the local specialties of fried lake frogs and lake frog risotto, which I somehow managed to eat with a smile. The frogs, notwithstanding, I was impressed with the simplicity and vibrant flavor of every dish, with the texture and characteristics of the grain taking center stage, elevating the dining experience to sublime.
After a visit from Al Fabione, a local celebrity race car driver who frequented the Osteria, we said our goodbyes and set off for the Cascina, flying through the valley past lush fields of green and gold, until we arrived at the impressive rice-growing estate. Cascina Veneria is a full cycle facility, which means that everything from planting the seed to packaging the superlative product is done on site and all in environmentally- friendly fashion. All of the traditional varieties of rice are grown, such as Carnaroli and Baldo, as well as rare rice varieties of scientific and gastronomic value. We toured the pristine facilities with Fulvio, and he showed us the state-of the-art equipment, including machines that separate stones from the rice, remove the film from the grain while leaving the nutritious bran, and one that identifies and removes the off-color and broken grains of rice from the bins so that only the finest grains are packaged. The rice is even stored in vaults filled with CO2 to prevent insects from surviving in that climate.
Afterwards, our group looked over the products to see what we wanted to introduce to our customers back home. The Carnaroli rice was a must, an Extra Fine variety that won the Gold Medal at the International Rice Olympic Games in Spain (2006) and known as the Supreme Performer in the kitchen. The Carnaroli grains are well-separated, have an excellent absorption capacity and are preferred by beginning cooks and great chefs alike. Carnaroli is ideal for making risotto and Martha Stewart’s Buttternut Squash Risotto is perfectly suited to this rice variety. Baldo rice is the creamiest of the rice varieties and is a relative newcomer in the Extra Fine category. It is actually derived from Arborio, and has translucent, compact grains with an excellent absorption capacity as well. It will make a creamier risotto, and is particularly suited to baked rice dishes, or as an accompaniment to fish or vegetables. Baldo rice would make this Caramelized Rice Pudding extra creamy and unctuous. I also chose Vialone Nano, a special rice from Northeastern Italy with a lovely smooth, light consistency. The small, rounded grains are very compact and work quite well in soups or in a rice salad.
I was also enamored with the Risotto Collection, which come in a variety of flavors, including Mediterranean Vegetable, Artichoke and Porcini Mushroom. When you are in the mood for a bowl of rich, creamy Italian risotto, this is the ultimo! Cascina Veneria starts with the Carnaroli rice and then expertly blends specially selected vegetables and the perfect combination of herbs and spices to create a risotto that only needs the addition of a little olive oil and water. I love this very easy, yet authentic risotto!
After a whirlwind week of meeting talented artisan producers and farmers and tasting their fine products, I returned home to await delivery of all of the treasures discovered abroad. As of this writing, the Cascina Veneria rice and all of the other Italian foods are finally here and making their way onto the shelves at Sickles Market. You’ll even find some soon in the new on-line store! Come by and try some of them for yourself!