October is harvest time for rice in the Camargue, where 200 rice farmers produce 80,000 tonnes a year from 15,000 hectares of land in the only rice region of France.
It has all the requirements for this crop – abundant water from the Rhône delta, sun, and the mistral wind, which dries the rice naturally after harvest.
Rice was introduced into southern France at the end of the 13th century. In August 1593, Henry IV, on the advice of his chief minister, Duke of Sully, ordered the production of rice in the Camargue.
Until 1930, it was mainly used to create agricultural land for other crops such as vines, because it prevented the region reverting to unproductive salt marshes.
However during the war years, rice became an important food source and production increased.
After the Second World War, money from the Marshall Plan aimed at revitalising Europe, was invested in the area, which allowed irrigation and drainage ditches to be created, land to be levelled, and pumping stations, rice transformation centres and silos to be built. By 2000, the Riz de Camargue had obtained the European Protected Geographical Indication label.
Rice from the Camargue represents a tiny percentage of the world’s output.
Bertrand Mazel, President of both the Union of European Rice Farmers and the Union of French Rice Farmers says that France produces 3% of rice in Europe, and that Europe produces 0.3% of rice in the world. However, he says that in terms of quality, the Riz de Camargue is one of the best, one of the healthiest and certainly the one with the highest traceability:
“Our rice is a premium rice. The French regulations together with European laws mean it is produced under the strictest codes – 20% is organic and the remaining 80% uses the minimum of treatments. Water can only be used in the fields once, unlike many other countries where it is repumped over and over again.
“The grains are dried naturally by the mistral which means fungicides don’t need to be added. None of it is genetically modified and you can find out exactly which farm your rice comes from.”
Mr Mazel says that rice is big business: “It is the only cultivated cereal that is only eaten by humans and not by animals. Its world production is massive. On average each person in the world consumes 54 kilos a year. In China that rises to 250 kilos per person per year, in France that goes down to between four and five kilos.
“Competition is therefore rife and often there is zero traceability, so you cannot be sure what processes the rice on your dish has gone through.”
In France 25% of rice on consumers’ plates comes from the Camargue.
He says it is also important for maintaining the eco-system of the Camargue: “It is the largest wetland zone in Europe and that is because of the water used to grow rice. Without it there would not be the biodiversity for which the region is famous and in particular, there would not be such rich birdlife.”
There are around 60 varieties of rice. All of these can be grown in the Camargue, except Basmati, which requires a tropical climate. There are long, extra-long, medium, round, perfumed, coloured (red or black), risotto and sushi.
The area is best known for its red and black rice which are both sold wholegrain; the most nutritious as the vitamins, minerals and amino acids are conserved.
Mr Mazel says they are particularly good with meat or fish: “They are a little different from other varieties as they have a taste a bit like lentils and are crunchy. They are very good seasoned with butter or olive oil.”
The rice is harvested from mid-September to the end of October. The paddy fields are drained to allow harvesters, equipped with caterpillar tracks to collect the rice, and transport it to nearby silos.
During the rest of autumn and winter, each field is dried and levelled with the aid of a laser-guided blade as the surface must be as flat as possible. Canals and drains are repaired.
The real skill of the rice farmer comes into play in the spring when water is let into the fields and sowing begins. The water level is crucial to favour germination and protect from the Mistral wind. Out of 200kg of rice sown per hectare, only half will grow to maturity.
In summer, farmers constantly check water levels. They must control weeds and watch out for coypu, shrimps and flamingos which can destroy a crop. From the end of August, the farmers slowly decrease the water levels up to harvest time.
Marine Rozière, from the Maison du Riz (www.maisonduriz.com) in Albaron, Bouches-du-Rhône comes from the sixth generation to cultivate rice on her farm where she works with her parents and brother. They cultivate 300 hectares of cereal, 200 hectares of rice and 100 of durum wheat. They produce black, red, naturally perfumed, sushi, risotto and long white rice.
She is passionate about her job, even though she says rice is a cereal that needs daily attention and likens it to looking after animals: “It is an aquatic plant and will die if it is not in water, so we check the irrigation system every day.
“The crop is in water from May to September and we drain the fields 15 days before we harvest it. I love it. We always have our feet in the water and our heads in the sun, just like the rice.”
The family sell their rice directly to supermarkets. They adapt to changing fashions: “A few years ago it was long rice. Now sushi is very popular.
“One of my favourites is red rice which is very good for your health and it can lower cholesterol levels.”
However, she says the industry is getting more competitive: “There is a great deal of competition from Asia and Spain and Italy who can sell at lower prices.
“The strict regulations and numerous taxes mean our costs are high. Some producers have given up, but we are fighting to continue. If rice disappears from the Camargue it will ruin the ecosystem bringing back salt marshes and making any form of agriculture impossible.”
Camargue rice timbale with rice flour biscuit
100g Camargue wholegrain red rice
100g Camargue wholegrain black rice
100g Camargue wholegrain round rice
100g Camargue white round rice
salt and ground coriander
30cl olive oil
10cl balsamic vinegar
20cl olive oil
10 flat-leaf parsley leaves
100g mesclun salad mix
Rice Flour Biscuit
50g Camargue wholemeal rice flour
1 egg white
2cl olive oil
5g grilled sesame seeds.
1. Cook each rice separately, mid-way through cooking season, and add the olive oil when cooked, and stir in with a fork.
2. Layer the rice in ramekin.
3. For the sauce mix the juice from the lemon, balsamic vinegar, salt, ground coriander and add progressively to the olive oil, whilst beating. Add the parsley.
4. For the biscuits mix the rice flour, egg white, olive oil, water, salt, ground coriander and grilled sesame seeds. Leave to rest for 15 minutes, then spread the mixture in a thin layer on greaseproof paper and cook in the oven at 180°C for 7 to 8 minutes until they begin to colour.
Turn out each ramekin onto a plate, add the salad, the sauce and the rice biscuits.