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What You Need to Know About Rice

Ripe Carolina Gold rice in Beaumont, Texas.

Carolina Gold

Carolina Gold rice, a long-grain rice of slender size and ambition, first surfaced in South Carolina just after our Revolution. Clean, sweet, and non-aromatic, it prospered in coastal Carolina and Georgia bogs and did its fluffy separate-grain thing in a traditional black iron hearth pot, or potje, complementing the African-style stews it attended. In colonial Charleston, African slave women hand-pounded and winnowed hulls from the rice grains with mortar, pestle, and fanner basket. The resulting rice, scrubbed golden white through abrasion, contained whole and broken grains, with germ and flecks of bran intact. Its flavor and texture were exquisite. Barely a long-grain rice by definition and nearly a medium-grain in its dimension and diversity of cooking application, Carolina Gold had attributes substantial enough to appeal to a broad international market.

The Civil War brought the culture and cuisine of Charleston to its knees, and though Carolina Gold continued to set quality standards for American rice into the 20th century, it ultimately lost ground to new varieties and became, after the Depression, virtually extinct. In the mid-1980s, a plantation owner from Savannah collected stores of Carolina Gold from a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) seed bank and repatriated the rice to its former home along the coastal wetlands south of Charleston. Anson Mills began growing heirloom Carolina Gold for research in 1998 and today has organic rice fields in Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Texas.

“New crop rice,” the name designate for Anson Mills Carolina Gold, refers to rice that is milled and cooked within two months of harvest. The appeal of new crop rice (which is nearly a religion in Japan) lies in its delicate fresh flavor and lush, pearly mouthfeel, qualities derived from the immature starch character of the kernels themselves, and because the rice has not been dried down. By contrast, most rice in the United States is harvested and run over a high-heat drying table, a process that converts the kernels to mature, aged rice with no remaining new crop quality. Unlike mature rice, new crop Carolina Gold retains subtle traces of field greenery in its aroma and flavor, particularly green tea and almond. For practical purposes, Anson Mills extends the life and character of new crop rice by storing unhulled rice in the freezer until it is milled, and returns colonial-style Carolina Gold rice with state-of-the-art milling technology designed by engineers in California and Japan. It is the only rice of its kind produced in the United States.

Neutral-in-flavor, non-aromatic rice, like Carolina Gold and Japanese short-grain, enhances subtly seasoned fare, supporting a delicate fish sauce or chicken stew and providing a bolster for raw fish. Non-aromatic rice has a more absorbing nature as well: it will bloom with the flavor of whatever it touches in a pot.

Carolina Long Gold

When Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to France for our new government, tried to persuade French rice merchants to buy Carolina Gold rice, the French said no thanks. They preferred the gruel-like qualities of medium-grain Italian rice to Carolina Gold’s firm texture and upright carriage for their puddings and desserts.

Recognizing the French might have a point, Jefferson dispatched his own agent to smuggle seed rice out of Italy and sent the seed, probably an ancestor of Arborio, to a successful Charleston rice planter for study. Jefferson continued, throughout his presidency, to promote research in South Carolina to breed a rice variety capable of producing both high-quality separate grain and gruel dishes. By 1820, a new rice called Carolina Long Gold began to establish an elite market share in Europe. Beyond its superior flavor, aroma, and texture, this elegant new rice possessed starch qualities capable of producing sticky, creamy, or separate-grain dishes, depending on how it was cooked. Estate grown and especially prepared for market, its cooked grains were visually unique and beautifully textured. Carolina Long Gold created a culture and cuisine of influence in the city of Charleston and enabled America to take the European rice trade from Italy and dominate world import rice markets until the Civil War. Carolina Long Gold rice and other important local rice varieties conceived during the Jefferson era and marketed after his presidency were lost during the Civil War.

Charleston Gold

In 1998, Dr. Gurdev Khush, a rice geneticist, and his good friend and rice entomologist from Charleston, Dr. Merle Shepard, began a collaboration at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Using descriptors associated with Carolina Long Gold and genetic material from Carolina Gold, they created a new rice with attributes of the famous lost Carolina Long, and sought to give this new rice an aromatic dimension akin to the floral rices of India and South Asia. After a decade of selection and trials of over 100 different new cultivars, they produced a beautiful new rice bred naturally from Carolina Gold. Elegant, long, and slender with a subtle perfume, this new rice cooks slightly dry, and grain-for-grain. Dr. Anna McClung, a rice geneticist at the USDA-ARS in Beaumont, Texas, collaborated with Drs. Khush and Shepard to release this new rice to the public. Charleston Gold, as it is called, underwent culinary trials in commercial kitchens in Charleston beginning in 2008, and was released to the public by the USDA in 2012.

Charleston Gold is an aromatic rice and, like other long-grain varieties such as basmati and jasmine, has a heady, perfumed fragrance and a flavor distinctive enough to go head-to-head with the racy-hot and complex seasonings of Thai and Indian cuisine, or reveal itself slowly in a solitary bowl with just a touch of butter. Long-grain aromatic rice can generally be relied on to cook up dry, light, and fluffy, and Charleston Gold possesses this delightful trait as well.

Laurel-Aged Charleston Gold Rice

The threat of hurricanes put Antebellum Carolina rice production under routine threat of catastrophic loss. To preempt possible loss, Carolina rice farmers created a network of seed farms that each year banked seed enough for three planting seasons. Sealed in barrels with wild red bay laurel, the third-year rice consistently developed unique aromatic properties, flavor, and texture. It appeared occasionally as an elite rice on European markets where it fetched spectacular prices . . . and then it disappeared. Today Anson Mills banks Charleston Gold rice seed with wild bay laurel to insure the seed’s availability for future crops. Our oldest Charleston Gold rice, banked in 2008 developed extraordinary flavor nuances and is stunning in taste and texture. We released this rice in 2011 much as a small winery might release a special bottling, and will continue to release subsequent years as they become available—provided no seed fields are destroyed by hurricane.