The Camargue, the vast, fertile delta formed by the Rhône before flowing into the Mediterranean, is famous among tourists for pink flamingos, salt marshes and black bulls.
It is also ideal for growing rice. “Rice is a freshwater aquatic plant that needs light, mild temperatures and wind. We benefit from all these elements thanks to our Mediterranean climate and the Mistral wind,” says Bertrand Mazel, who, along with some 150 other rice growers, cultivates what is known as ‘blond gold’ on this extensive territory: Camargue rice, essentially the only rice that is “made in France”.
Its nutty taste, aromatic qualities and rich flavours are highly appreciated in cooking.
An exploration of varieties
The best-known varieties, both round and long, include: paddy – a grain with a tough edible husk; cargo – a complete rice, the most nutritious of all; brown – a semi-complete rice; wholly milled – rice stripped of its surrounding layers; parboiled rice – whose starch has been destroyed, ideal for risotto; and red rice – the darling of Michelin-starred chefs, a complete rice whose pericarp is naturally tinted red.
“But in reality, around sixty different varieties are grown in the Camargue, and we shouldn’t talk about one Camargue rice, but about Camargue rices. This diversity lets us adapt to consumer demand,” says Bertrand Mazel, also president of Syndicat des Producteurs Riziculteurs Européens, a European federation of rice growers based in Arles.
“We can produce everything except basmati rice. Today’s trends are sushi rice, quick-cooking two-minute rice, coloured rice (red and black) and risotto rice. We also make premium blends with different colours (black rice/wholemeal rice, red rice/white rice) and parboiled rices. Whatever their type, these rices also have excellent nutritional qualities and are naturally gluten-free.”
Undulating amid the marshes, roots in the water, stalks in the wind, the rice fields blend into the Camargue landscape like they’d been there forever. But in fact, the introduction of rice to the Camargue dates back just several centuries, with King Henri IV, on the advice of his minister Sully, ordering rice fields to be planted in the Camargue in 1593.
However, after many ups and downs, rice growing only really took off after the Second World War, thanks to the Marshall Plan and construction of irrigation systems and pumping stations, as freshwater irrigation was vital for rice.
It was so successful that, since 2000, Camargue rice has a PGI, a label guaranteeing consumers that the rice comes from Camargue and complies with procedures ensuring production quality, traceability and varietal selection techniques.
Today, the rice growers (18% of whom are organic) are based in an area that coincides exactly with that of the Camargue Regional Park, a triangle bounded by the towns of Aigues-Mortes to the west, Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône to the east and Tarascon to the north. Here, 99% of French rice is grown.
“Our work as rice growers is mainly in the field,” says Bertrand Mazel, whose 250 hectares of rice fields are in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 40 kilometres south of Arles, on the banks of the Petit Rhône, an arm of the Rhône delta.
“We must constantly check that the freshwater supply is balanced. We must also keep the plots clean, constantly monitoring plants until the rice comes out of the water and ensuring that pink flamingos don’t trample anything.
"Ditches must be maintained to control water supply and maintain constant water level. Contrary to popular belief, rice doesn’t like seawater”.
The Camargue rice-growing cycle begins in late winter with ploughing. Gutters are then dug to regulate irrigation and drainage. In mid-April, the land is irrigated and seed-sowing begins. Thereafter, water management becomes crucial to crop management.
Depending on climate and plant progression, the land is alternately drained and re-watered. Harvesting, which takes place just once a year, is from late September to early October using combine harvesters equipped to work in wet soils.
For most rice farmers, work as growers ends here. After that, the rice is sent to ‘riziers’ (millers), companies that buy rice and process it (hulling, blanching and parboiling) making it fit for consumption. “We also use by-products,” says Bertrand Mazel. “Rice is like pork – it’s all good. We make oil or flour from it, use the husk for insulation, the bran for cosmetics. Nothing is lost and everything can be reused.”
Once processed, this rice is available in high-end groceries, particularly organic and health food shops, or online. In the Camargue, it can be found everywhere at retailers set up along the main roads.
Retail prices range from €1.50 to €8 per kilo, the most expensive being coloured (red or black) rice or organic rice. And if visitors want to know everything there’s to know about rice, they can visit the Maison du Riz, a local Rice Museum in Albaron, between Arles and Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Camargue rice has become fashionable in recent years and is used in countless recipes, from the simplest to the most sophisticated. At La Chassagnette, the one-star Michelin restaurant set in the Camargue countryside south of Arles, chef Armand Arnal is particularly fond of organic red rice.
“It immediately appealed to me because it’s in its raw state and grows in natural areas, barely worked by man,” he says. “Our customers, surprised by its colour, seduced by its fragrance, captivated by its taste, love it. For them, It’s often a new discovery, because they usually don’t spontaneously choose wholegrain rice. They prefer white rice, whose colour evokes purity.”
More traditionally, Camargue rice is the basis for at least two local specialities: the Paella Camarguaise, which reminds us that, with our local bullring and bullfights, Spain is not far away; and the Gardianne de Taureau, a Camargue bull stew marinated in good red wine with bay leaves, thyme, orange peel, vinegar, onions and garlic.
Challenges and concerns
Although Camargue rice accounts for 20% of total French rice consumption, not everything is rosy for the sector. “Our production has dropped considerably in the last 30 years”, says Bertrand Mazel.
“As rice growers have to comply with very strict regulations compared with other rice-producing countries, our prospects are limited and some operators are discouraged. Rice from Asia, which is extremely competitive without the same environmental regulations, has invaded the market.”
Another major problem is the increase in water salinity caused by climate change, which is causing plants to wither. “For us, controlling salinity is the challenge for the next fifty years”, says Bertrand Mazel.
“Rice encourages and preserves an entire ecosystem. Without it, there wouldn’t even be any migratory birds. The Camargue is like a big bathtub with very high evaporation because of rising temperatures and increasingly low rainfall. If we don’t fill it with fresh water needed to grow rice, the wetlands will disappear.”
“And then,” he adds, “the Camargue will become nothing more than a vast salty desert.”