by Emilia Crippa
This article’s provocative title is actually supported by hydrogeology, history, local economics and culture. Indeed, since the 13th century, the Cistercian monks settled in Lombardy and particularly around Milan because the land was fertile and generous, thanks to the abundance of water; for centuries, hydraulics engineering molded geography, and water-meadows allowed agriculture to rise among some of the best and most innovative in Europe.
In the 19th century, swamp reclamation turned agriculture into the main engine of Milan’s wealth: produce and silk supported the development of trade, manufacturing, and culture.
Now did this rural past become only a lyrical memory, a long-gone tradition, as the city sprung towards the future, and a new skyline was designed over the Garibaldi district?
Absolutely not. The countryside is at the heart of the metropolis in Parco delle Risaie, an agricultural urban park of almost 700 hectares, extending from south-western Milan to Assago and Buccinasco, in Parco Agricolo Sud Milano, between Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese.
In 2008, an association formed to conserve the park’s productive role and to promote activities for nature, the environment, and the local territory. Today, the park does all this and much more: in Milan’s urban reality, it represents the successful long-period result of the collaboration between residents and farmers. After years of difficult relationships, something new was finally born out of the secret pact innovation and tradition seem to have always honored in Milan, bringing together the city and surrounding territories.
Overcoming thirty years of conflicts between city-dwellers and farmers – over pesticides, mosquitos, corn, mice, and paradoxically even the conversion from flooded rice paddies to upland rice farming, which took away the view of calming, glass-like water – and the old bickering that always came down to “You built your houses too close to our fields, we’ve been here for decades!”…. opposing parties finally came up with the recipe for a positive innovation.
The park is a sign of a modernity that prompts us to redesign our surroundings, our landscape, according to needs that reject clichés and force us to give a new take on today’s challenges, searching for new balances between so many, different souls: work in the fields, recreation, mobility.
Rice can be grown, packaged, sold. Today, five companies work and make a living off of it in Parco delle Risaie.
Finally, public institutions – Comune di Milano, first and foremost – gave life to Milan’s cultural and farming district, promoting grassroots initiatives that may have started from different points of view, but in the end brought people together under the common goal of sustainability.
From the combination of these ingredients, a new concept emerged that has the city at the heart of the countryside and the countryside at the heart of the city… If you don’t believe us, here are some hard facts to prove it: the Carnaroli rice grown by the farms in the Dam (Distretto agricolo milanese) consortium has recently reached the shelves of the largest chain of supermarkets in Northern Italy. What better proof that quality, profitability, and development can really mix with identity, tradition, and history?
Since May 2015, there have been countless initiatives. On May 20, “La strada del riso” (“The Rice Road”) inaugurated at the presence of farmers, authorities, Comune di Milano, supporting companies… and most importantly the guest of honor – rice – and Lombard chef Cesare Battisti as master of ceremony. Of course, Battisti prepared a delicious ‘risotto alla milanese’ proving the wonderful skills that made him one of the chef Ambassadors for Expo Milano 2015.
What is “The Rice Road”? An itinerary in two versions, a shorter and a longer one, offering a “guided tour” inside Parco delle Risaie. To fully enjoy nature, farming tradition and gastronomy, rice is seen in both its technical aspects – how it is grown, how water is managed, what flora and fauna are present, what techniques are used to refine rice – and its social and culinary value. Going from fields to farmhouses, during their tour, visitors are invited to taste rice and other local products at Corte della Risaia, as well as enjoy the view of a landscape that changes dramatically according to the moment of the year and phase in which farming is.
So, after all, you must agree that one really can enjoy the country life in Milan.