Italian rice a cure for whatever ails you

Toronto Star, May 29: It’s like a game of itchy Twister in the bath. I am soaking a dozen or so bug bites on my left hand, forearm and face while also trying to keep the smattering of bites on my right shoulder submerged in the milky water.

Three Italian women have assured me over plates of prosciutto, cheese and spicy marmalade that soaking in rice starch — amido di riso purissimo — will soothe my rather impressive collection of bug bites. I believe them.

Italians have been using rice starch to soothe what ails them for more than 2,000 years. The Romans used to import rice from Japan and India solely for medicinal purposes—the whole eating mushroom risotto with parmasen thing came later.

“Bathing in the starch of rice” was thought to cure intestinal problems, act as an anti-inflammatory and moisturize your skin. It still is. From the Romans to the Nonnas, Italians recommend picking up a tub of rice starch for people with allergies or those of us with “sangue dolce,” sweet blood that seems to attract the mosquitos.

Somewhere along the way, someone realized that eating rice was a pretty good idea too. And around the 15th century, Italians started growing it. The flat lands near Verona make it “a very lucky place” for the crop because of natural springs and marshes, our guide tells us as we drive south of Verona to Isola della Scala.

We’re off to see Riseria Ferron, a family-run operation that’s been processing rice since 1640. Buses of school children have beat us there to tour the original mill and watch as wooden “pistellos” drive into stone bowls of Vialone Nano rice.

The kids head to a teaching kitchen equipped with a couple of chefs to learn how to make risotto. Our group meets up with Gabriele Ferron, the charming proprietor who guides us around the property where his family has been working with rice for five generations.

Ferron is speaking in Italian, and with his hands, as he collects ingredients from gardens for the risotto he’ll make us for lunch. He snips white fennel, wisteria, sambuco, hops, sage, mint, forest chesnut as well a white lily for each of the North American ladies following him around. The basket of ingredients full, and flowers in our hair, we head off to his kitchen.

Ferron, the only known chef to cook risotto on the Great Wall of China, cautions us not to use too hot a pan or too much oil. “You have to listen to the rice singing,” he says. Our translator and one of the women who told me about bathing in starch shares another Italian secret: Making a C in the pan with olive oil. “We only use a C of oil,” she says. “Not an S. Just a C.” I believe her on this one too.

She laughs as she translates Ferron working at his stove: “Cooking risotto is like making love. You don’t have to look at your watch.” He stirs in the cheese, spoons out the risotto, tapping the bottom of each plate to flatten the rice before serving. When asked for one tip for making great risotto, Ferron gives three: Buy quality rice, use delicate broth (not too salty) and give it lots of love.

Before we go, the self-described “World’s Ambassador of Rice” tells us that every single grain of rice represents love, joy, wealth, fertility and prosperity (the carbs are a bonus). Ferron gives us each a tiny vial with a few grains of rice, and I start thinking of the plastic tub of starch waiting for me in the elegant bathroom back at the hotel.

My bug bites are itching again.

When we get back to Palazzo Victoria in the centre of Verona, I head up the gorgeous marble stairs to run a hot bath. As the giant tub starts to fill I pour in the starch. I think I can hear it sing too.

Just the facts:

Cooking risotto: Always use unsalted butter and never use a metal spoon, it can break the rice.

Bathing in rice starch: Use a few heaping tablespoons per bath. Or, if you prefer, you can soak a washcloth with starch and water and press it against your skin.

Palazzo Victoria: A bath almost big enough to swim laps is one of the many charms in this hotel just steps from a Roman arch and Verona’s main shopping street. The hotel – comprised of three former villas – combines modern décor, Roman ruins and unparalleled service. They’ll book you on a tour of the rice farm and bring you rice starch for the bath.

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