The 45th edition of the Fiera del Riso is underway in Isola Della Scala, a town on the low plains south of Verona. Once again, we in Italy, have a reason to overeat. Feasting seems to be part of the landscape here, a pastoral landscape that lands in your plate. Each little village has a special or beloved crop that is of particular importance. And the harvest of each of these; peas, asparagus, cherries, wine grapes, etc., etc. is marked with a Fair for celebration and EATING.
One of the biggest and most attended is the Rice Fair. Right now the harvest is underway. This means it is time to celebrate and have fun. The theme here is rice, Risotto rules. We are talking about 26 days of risotto, from September 18th till October 9th. The supporting cast includes paella, polenta, pizza, a variety of desserts, and even the milk for your coffee, all are made from rice or rice products.
There are two huge eating arenas filled with long tables and benches, food stands line the walls. There is no table service. You buy tickets for your food, wait in line and tray firmly gripped, grab places squeezed in with enthusiastically eating strangers. The lines can snake back and forth, five or six rows deep. The strangers may have driven hours from Bergamo just to indulge in three or four plates of different risottos washed down with good local wines from Valpolicella, Suave, Custoza or Bardolino. And they come back year after year.
The choice of risotto differs from day to day. You will always find “ all’Isolana, the traditional and beloved, meat based, local dish on the menu. Other selections are chosen from a list of at least 29 alternatives. You might find choices of Pear and Gorgonzola, Mushrooms, Saffron and Leeks, Duck, Pumpkin or Radicchio. Local cheeses like Monte Veronese and Grana Padana contribute to the creaminess. Every town in this rice growing area has its own signature recipe to promote.
There are also cooking contests, eight of them. One is an event for the mayors of local towns. They are allowed the assistance of a chef they trust. The public can sample all five of the competing risottos plus beverage and dessert for a modest fee which goes to charity. This year a new competition for the “Chicco d’Oro” (Golden Grain) of the world took place opening night. The judges were seated and eating when the guests for the grand Gala Dinner arrived, walking behind the marching band that opened the fair. During an evening of delicious rice and wine, awards were given for outstanding local residents and at evening’s end, the judges’ choices were announced. An Italian from Puglia took first place with awards also going to Australian and Thai chefs. An American and a Chinese chef were also part of the five competing finalists. Chatting with one of the other cook-off spectators, I discovered she was the mother of, as well as interpreter, for the Australian Chef. She was delighted to be back in Italy, where she was born, for the first time able to watch her son professionally cooking, as opposed to what he does in her home kitchen.
Eating Risotto is the main attraction. But it can be challenging getting there. The fair ground eating pavilions are reached by means of a snaking pedestrian road jammed with hungry visitors and lined with stands of all sorts vying for your attention. Hair ornaments and massaging recliners call out to you. And then there is the food, sacks of rice and bottles of prize winning olive oil, huge brick like blocks of torrone or pure liquorice for making liqueurs at home, roasted nuts, breads and cheeses all want to be bought and nibbled before you arrive at your destination.
Before reaching this challenge you had to park and walk past the restaurants, many with outdoor seating, all serving their own risottos and special rice dishes. You begin to understand why people return different evenings to sample the abundance.
If you need a reason other than your taste buds to go, there are sports events, concerts, shop window competitions and more. After all, it is a Fair.
The Italian Touring Club produces a map of the ‘rice road’ for the rice called Vialone Nano Veronese I.G.P., the rice used for creamy risotto. More info go to: www.risovialonenanoveronese.it or www.fieradelriso.it
Written by our Italy Correspondent and Artist Carol Schultheiss in Cavallini