A look at the traditional rice cultivation in the region, and a yummy recipe too!
Rice might seem a pretty ordinary food, an item we take for granted. It goes with our curry or risotto, it is more of an add-on than a feature ingredient. But the majority of rice consumed in France is grown right here in the south of France, in the Delta of the Rhône valley. And not just any rice, but many varieties, including the gourmet red rice used by the best chefs. This has a great colour, fantastic texture and nutty flavour.
The first cultivation of rice in the Camargue dates back to around 1600. There are now 10,000 hectares of rice grown in the region, much of it exported across the world.
There is quite a fine science to cultivating rice. After the winter preparation of the soil, the work continues into April when the soil is fertilised and ploughed again. When the temperature is right, the fields are flooded, with water drawn from the Rhône river by pumps into canals which feed up to 20 farms. In order to flood the rice fields small floodgates are lifted to allow water to pass through a system of smaller canals into the fields. These allow the level of water to be controlled. In May rice seed is sown into the shallow water with special tractors on metal tyres that won’t sink into the hard subsoil. By the end of May the rice emerges above the water and you can observe small helicopters buzzing to and fro spraying weedkiller, because there are many organisms and weeds that attack the young rice.
In June the level of water is crucial to the growth and development of the maximum number of grains per rice stalk. Throughout the summer the rice continues to grow and what you think is a lovely meadow is actually a rice field, the water being hidden from view. A drive down from Nîmes to Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer takes you past fields of rice as far as the eye can see. The harvest period is from September to November, and you will be able to see harvesters throwing up huge clouds of dust across the countryside, and in some fields little fires as the stubble is burnt off.
You will no doubt be tempted to rush out and buy some Camargue rice to see just if it is as good as they say. Here is a recipe donated by Merchant Gourmet in the UK.
Red Camargue Rice Salad
* 175g Camargue Red Rice
* 6 tbsp Garlic Infused Olive Oil
* 125g SunBlush® Tomatoes
250g bunch of asparagus
100g trimmed sugar snap peas
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 large shallot, finely chopped