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The Pila Vecia, the old rice mill

The Pila Vecia (The Old Rice Mill) on Passolongo, just a few kilometres from the centre of Isola della Scala, owes its name to the fact that, up until the end of World War II, there was another more modern rice mill located on the same road. But the Pila Vecia is also “vecia” (meaning old or ancient) in the absolute sense of the word, if one only considers that its origins date back to the mid-seventeenth century. In fact, according to documents now belonging to the state archives of Venice, a request to build the mill was made to the Serene Republic on April 26th 1644 by Domenico Cristato, an estate holder at the time, and by 1656 the Pila Vecia was up and running.

Over the centuries the Pila Vecia belonged to several families from the Venetian aristocracy, among whom we should note the Zenobios who ran the mill for over a century and a half: there are still traces to be found of their uninterrupted possession; for example, the coat of arms in the Pila Vecia displaying a lion and an eagle is that of the Zenobio family. What’s more, the stream that even today supplies the energy needed for moving the mill’s mechanisms is named Fossa Zenobia (Zenobio’s stream).

The Pila Vecia has also left its mark on more recent events. If you go into any of the inns of Buttapietra or Isola della Scala and ask one of the older clients to explain what “Piccola Italia” (“Little Italy”) was, mention of the Pila Vecia is sure to come up.

During the Second World War, allied bombing was intense and continual throughout the area. The Pila Vecia, however, was not targeted in these attacks, probably because it was located near a prisoner of war camp full of British soldiers.

As a result, many homeless families (fifteen according to Mr. Ferron, the owner of the Pila Vecia to this day and a direct witness of the events) found refuge in the mill and transferred their daily activities here: the Zecchetto women who ran the inn; the Rinco family, smithies; Mrs. Donatelli, the tailor, and Mr. Cremone, the barber.

In the end this community, whose only resources were a horse, a cow, and their own labour, came to be called "Piccola Italia”.

Even after the armistice of September 8, 1943, the Pila Vecia remained a reference point both for Italian soldiers and British prisoners now on the loose.

It was the unassuming yet determined action of the Ferron family to help return home those British soldiers who had, until recently, been enemies that caused the family to be formally recognised by the Allied Supreme Command.

The mill workers are known as “piloti”, or rice threshers even today.

Traditionally this was a profession that called for a long period of apprenticeship. Boys beginning work had to leave home in order to live in the mill. The work continued without a break, day and night: often even their sleep was interrupted in order to “cavar la bianca” ("remove the white part”), in other words to extract the rice already milled from the mortar and to pile it up while waiting for it to be sieved.

Rice was the sole object of their attention as well as the staple of their diet. They would cook it in great quantities to keep for several days, later cutting it into slices and reheating it on a grill. This was known as “risotto alla pilota”.

For the Ferron family the profession of threshing was passed down from generation to generation. Tradition refers to their great-grandfather Luigi Zecchetti who, besides owning La Pila Vecia, also managed another mill on Passolongo, two others belonging to the Marquis of Pindemonte in Osseggiolo and Vò, and those in the villages of Boschi and San Giorgio.

One of Zecchetti’s daughters married Marcello Ferron who continued the activity of his father-in-law and passed it on to his own son Lionello, known as Marcellino, and grandsons Gabriele and Maurizio, the present managers.

In recent decades the traditional means for powering the mill have been augmented by relatively more modern, electric-powered machinery.

The great paddle-driven wheel (7.5 metres in diameter), activated by the Fossa Zenobia, has survived thanks to the insistence of the Ferron family who wished to conserve it not only because it is an important document of the technology of the past, but because it remains in perfect working order.

Also in existence are nine “pile” (mortars) carved from single blocks of red Verona marble, together with their pestles, which with rhythmic motion free the raw rice from its outer hull, a lengthy business also necessitating complicated handling.

The resulting rice is not very attractive in appearance but maintains all its qualities of taste and nutrition, though it requires longer cooking. Pila Vecia’s “Vialone Nano” rice, typical of the Verona area, is offered in two versions, one of which is buffered to become polished rice and the other the product of ancient threshing traditions; both are guaranteed by the “Consorzio di Tutela del Vialone Nano Veronese”.

Of all cereals, rice, far more than wheat, has the most ancient traditions of cultivation.

Its origins, being without any kind of historical documentation, are recorded in legend as the gift of Hindu divinities.

The earliest records of rice cultivation in Italy date from the fifteenth century in letters of the Sforza family in Milan which sent rice seeds to the Este family in Ferrara.

Its current cultivation extends over a total area of two hundred thousand hectares, over half of which is in Piedmont; there followed by Lombardy, Emilia, Veneto, Tuscany, Sardinia, Apulia, and Calabria.

The flowering of a rice plant is similar to a corncob and contains from a hundred to two hundred grains. When the crop is harvested, dried, and stored in the autumn, the grain is left with its outer husk which will protect it from external damage.

In order to render the grain edible, the first process undertaken in the Pila Vecia, as in other mills, is the removal of the woody outer husk of the flower, followed by the separation of immature and imperfect rice grains from the “semi-raw” rice.

From this very simple series of mechanical operations wholegrain or brown rice is obtained.

The wholegrain brown rice, sometimes also consumed as part of a therapeutic diet, is then subject to a process of further refinement, making it suitable for normal use . One should keep in mind that the rice is not subject to any treatment apart from the mechanical abrasion and removal of the grains’ external flours: the “pula” (chaff), and the “farinaccio” or coarse flour. There then follows a selection of the products resulting from refining.

At this point the rice has a grey-white colour which to ordinary eyes might seem “dirty”: after refining or whitening procedures the rice seems white, more or less brilliant with  its luminosity depending upon how far the refining process has been pushed past the point of being necessary and useful.

Inexperienced people love to see brilliant and luminous rice. Those who are more knowledgeable are aware of the defects of over-refined rice and prefer a darker, if more particular product, one from which the processing has removed the least quantity of chaff containing proteins, vitamins, fats and mineral oils.

It is this last characteristic that is peculiar to Pila Vecia rice, obtained by using an artigianal pestle process.

The nutritional value and nutrient properties are tied to the presence of organic and mineral content in the rice. Rice grains consist mainly of starch whose granules are relatively smaller than those found in other cereals or tubers. For this reason too, beyond its containing only a minor quantity of raw fibre, rice is more easily digested than foods prepared with wheat flour. The nutritive value of rice also derives from the presence of percentages of noble proteins (Lysine, Leucine, Argenine etc.) and high percentages of fatty acids (oleic and linoleic acids); there is also a significant quantity of mineral salts (phosphorus, calcium, potassium, and magnesium) giving rice wide therapeutic qualities.

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