Our Trip to Cascina Oschiena’s Sustainable Farm!

In September 2022, we were fortunate to travel to Piedmont, Italy to visit with some incredible producers making a difference in that region’s farmland. Piedmont is one of the northernmost regions in Italy at the base of the Italian Alps, home to great seasonal food and wine.

We visited our sustainable rice producer, Cascina Oschiena, whose products we have been importing since the fall of 2020. Alice Cerutti, the owner and farmer, came into this land through her family who rented it out to commercial growers for decades (AND it has been in rice production since the Benedictine era, around year 500). She and her mother kept visiting the land and wondering what it would be like to take it back into their family as their farm. The more she visited, the more Alice realized that was exactly what she wanted to do.

So, Alice made it her mission to revive the land and farm rice sustainably. She converted a quarter of the property into a nature reserve, which saw an increase and return in many wetland species, including endangered migratory birds. She is a member of EcoRice, and is constantly striving to improve their sustainability efforts.
Read more about them here!

The quality of her rice and farro are the result of these efforts. And just stepping foot on the farm, you can tell her care and authenticity runs through it. There is an old Benedictine church in a plot of natural woods in the middle of her rice farm, and she tells the story of miracles that have happened from local people praying to it. She and her husband decided to marry in that very church. Alice was giddy showing us her rice plants, and could talk to you for days about her latest projects. 

Alice also showed us the dikes that circulate and bring water to flood the rice fields. It is part of a gravity-based system that uses a system of leveling and redirecting to flow or stop water. The technique is as simple as putting wooden boards up in front of the dikes. The water is fresh spring water from the mountains, and they are one of the first farms to receive it in the region, so it is as pure as it can get. As Alice was explaining her practice of crop rotation on the farm, she introduced us to Ebano.

Ebano (“ebony” in Italian, but also the acronym Early Black Aromatic Novelty) is a new variety of aromatic black whole grain rice. As of this writing in April 2023, Cascina Oschiena is only one of six farmers to cultivate it. It’s a healthy and unique alternative to the black rice Alice used to grow, Venere. For reasons beyond her control, Alice has made the decision to replace her Venere fields with Ebano, and she couldn’t be more excited about it. It is a niche product and not yet too commercial or industrial. Ebano doesn’t produce a huge yield, but it is a good one: a warm toasted bread aroma with hints of popcorn and cocoa, as well as antioxidants! These come from the anthocyanins in the plant, which are also what give it the strong black color. Its organoleptic properties, health benefits, and color make it a great choice for fragrant cooking. It becomes soft and fluffy during cooking while still maintaining structure. Think salads, as a side with fresh herbs and olive oil, or with meats and vegetables. 30 minute cook time, 2.5 cups of water per cup of rice.

Another advantage to switching to Ebano: the plant has a relatively short cultivation cycle (only 100 days), so it is one of the only varieties that allows for a full double cycle of crop rotation in the growing season. Cascina Oschiena is able to plant farro in the winter in between Ebano plantings. Farro (emmer) is harvested at the end of June, and then Ebano is planted in June/July for a October harvest. Ebano + farro = a harmonious relationship! This crop rotation practice enhances the quality and health of the soil, allowing both farro and Ebano to grow strong without the need of chemical fertilizers, a great and high quality win-win scenario. Alice says, “Tasting Ebano rice will be a unique experience. Being a new variety, the amount of this special rice is very limited. We, at Cascina Oschiena, will be among the six farmers that will grow Ebano black rice. We are so happy and proud of this exciting new experience of sharing a new and unique top quality black rice.”

CO7000 12 x 1kg box
CO7005 6 x 500g box

Selenio is the oldest small, round variety of short grain rice grown in Italy today. It was included in the Italian Register in 1987. Selenio is crystalline with no pearl, so it looks almost translucent and sparkly. What is a pearl, you might ask? Classic risotto rice varieties like her classic Carnaroli have a small, solid white granular structure in the middle of the grain. These make the rices more textured, crunchy and nutty – and great for risotto, of course! Italians consider the pearls to be the “soul of the rice.” Carnaroli has a crunchy soul, Alice says. So does her new rice, Selenio, not have a soul? No, she explains it has a soft soul, or an “anima morbida.” We like that description, especially accompanied with its bright crystal appearance. Selenio has a lower amylose (a type of starch) content than other short grain rices, which makes it sticky, soft, and digestible after cooking. This stickiness lends it versatility in cooking, being excellent for arancini, sushi, fusion cuisine, puddings, and other desserts. Selenio also has a lower gylcemic index for short grain rices, making a good choice for those watching their glucose levels. 15 minute cook time, 1.5 cups of water per cup of rice.

Selenio is sown in water and has a short cultivation cycle (130 days) compared to other small-round type varieties, and this allows Alice to let the cover crops that they sow in winter (to increase natural fertility and the high quality of the soil) grow strong and healthy. The late sowing of Selenio allows also a great collaboration with a nearby shepherd Andrea. He comes with his 1200 sheep and 6 donkeys (for company) that eat the cover crops (mainly grass and vetch). Of course, they give back manure to the soil that contains organic matter and natural nitrogen: key nutrients for top quality rice. And this makes Andrea happy too: he knows that his sheep are eating natural and healthy grass (see photos below). This is a virtuous example of a circular economy applied to agriculture! Selenio is also grown around Cascina Oschiena’s nature wetlands reserve. This facilitates water purification and fosters more biodiversity.

CO6000 12 x 1kg box
CO6005 6 x 500g box

Cascina Oschiena is our ethical choice for sustainably grown grains. As Alice says, “today, preserving the environment today is not enough, it is necessary to give back to nature for a better future.”

Written by Tess Dunlap