Question: What kind of rice did the cooks of medieval Europe use?
At this point in time there is no clear proof of whether the rice referred to in medieval European cookbooks was white or brown, long or short grain. However, there is some information which strongly suggests that it was a short or medium grain, white rice.
The notes that follow were sent to me by Louise Smithson (known as Helewyse de Birkestad).
Brown rice has a very short shelf life, to counteract this the rice is hulled and polished. In "On Food and Cooking", Harold McGee says that India has been polishing it's rice for 2000 years. No proof or secondary reference, but I do believe that white rice was the norm rather than the exception as rice is a major ingredient in white dishes (e.g. blancmange).
Origin & Type
The short grain types (were domesticated) around 7000 BCE in the Yangtze River valley of south central China, and long grain types in Southeast Asia sometime later. Rice found it's way from Asia to Europe via Persia where the Arabs learned to grow and cook it. The Moors first grew large quantities in Spain in the 8th century, then somewhat later in Sicily. The Po river valley and the Lombardy plain in Northern Italy, the home of risotto, first produced rice in the 15th century. So rice imported into England was in most likelyhood coming from Spain, Southern Italy or the Arab lands.
All rices fall into just two subspecies. Indica rice are generally grown in lowland tropic and subtropics and accumulate a large amount of amylose starch, and produce a long firm grain. Japonica rice, with upland varieties that do well both in the tropics (Indonesia and Filipino types) and in temperate climates (Japan, Korea, Italy and California) accumulate substantially less amylose starch and produce a shorter stickier grain.
Now my reading of this is that it would be the short grain varieties grown in Europe and Arabic lands, neither location is what could be called a lowland tropic or subtropic. So short grain may have been what was used in medieval Europe. The long grains having too far to travel to make them economically feasible. Currently the most common varieties grown in Spain fall mostly in the short grain variety; most common varieties being Bomba (short), Bahia (short) and Valencia (Medium). [source]
On the other hand, Iran, the major rice producer in the Arabic world is a bit more confusing, apparently highly praised the long grain aromatic varieties (something like Basmati called Sadri) but traditional varieties (called Champa) are short to medium grain. [source]
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