More than half of the World’s population depends on rice as their basic means of sustenance. It is the most important agricultural crop in the world and has been around for more than 6,000 years, grown principally on the Indian subcontinent and in China. What’s more, according to the venerable Harold McGee in his superlative On Food and Cooking, there are an estimated 100,00 different varieties growing in the world today.
In the great scheme of things, rice is a relative newcomer to Europe, most likely introduced to Greece by Alexander the Great when he returned home from his travels in India in the fourth century. The Moors introduced it to Spain when they invaded in the eighth century, and Spain introduced it to Italy in the 14th century, and then to South America in the 17th. Spaniards eat on average six kilogrammes of rice per person, per year.
The grain was first planted south of Valencia in the marshlands surrounding the large wetlands of l’Albufera; in Castellón and Andulucia; and on the l’Empordá plains of Catalunya. However, by the year 1238, following a virulent outbreak of malaria across the entire Països Catalanes, King Jaume I of Aragon decreed that rice growing be restricted to the paddies of l’Albufera. His diagnosis, not incorrectly, put the epidemic down to the fetid, stagnant lagoons where the rice grew.
History repeated itself centuries later in the Empordà, where rice growing in the aïguamolls (marshes) was an important source of income between the 16th and 18th century. “In 1835, when the fevers possessed the region and extended mourning everywhere, Creixença Vilà, after the death of her husband, her children, Paulí, Antón, Climent and Caterina, and her brothers-in-law Narcís, Jaume and Josep, and realising that the pleas of the villages afflicted by the epidemic, began a vigorous protest against the rice crop,” wrote Francis Barret in his essay, ‘Els Aïguamolis and Malaria’. “The inhabitants of Albons, Bellcaire and Torroella de Montgrí met in the square of the last village and decided to drain the land and thus destroy the crop. That way, the epidemic would end in all the rice areas of the Empordà.”
Creixença’s campaign almost succeeded in entirely wiping out rice from the religion, but not quite. A small amount is still grown around Pals, which today has its own D.O. The bulk of Spain’s rice crop, however, is still grown in Valencia. Spain’s Japonica grains (similar to sushi rice) are typically short, round and fat, distinguished by their high starch molecule count which means they swell, concertina-like when simmered in liquid, absorbing flavour while retaining their shape.
Modern rice-growing methods employ a series of flooding (every hectare of rice requires around 35,000 cubic metres of water a year) and training techniques eliminating stagnant waters and eradicating the threat of disease. In brief, from September through to February the fields are flooded. In March and April, the fields are drained and the ground ploughed and prepared for planting. At the end of April the fields are flooded again, and finally, in May, they are drained once more (as water drains off the paddies it takes with it the insects and parasites that threaten the crop) and planted with the grain ready for harvesting come September. At this time of year, the paddy fields of l’Albufera make an extraordinary sight that belongs more to Asia than to Spain: an endless pea-green sea criss-crossed by muddy channels, though the modern harvest is now conducted by brilliant machines rather than the hand of man.
This relatively small region accounts for 90 percent of the rice in Spain and 26 percent of the rice in all Europe. There are three key varieties: Bahía, Senia, and the wonderful Bomba all of which fall under the D.O de Arròs de Valencia. Bomba is the best, the most difficult to grow and therefore the most expensive, but it will transform an ordinary paella into a gastronomic delight.
And so, on to Spain’s national dishes: arroces (from the Arabic ar-ruzz). From the juicy calderos of Murcia to the Costa Brava’s arròs negres to the famed paellas of Valencia, the extraordinary depth and diversity of Spanish rice dishes, in feast and in famine, is one of the country’s greatest gastronomic achievements.
Paella takes its name from the utensil that cooks it. A paellero/a is the person who cooks it, and a serious business it is, too. In 1987, Lorenzo Millo Casas of the Spanish Gastronomic Society published the following guidelines for making a good one:
“Paella is essentially an open-air festive dish, and, as such, falls within the masculine preserve. The paella is a pastoral dish, born under a shady tree. It is a man who must prepare it, a recognised paellero of good repute. It must be eaten out of the pan in which it is cooked, with the participants seated in a circle around it, each armed with his own wooden spoon.”
It’s worth noting here that the original paellas were products of the land, not the sea, typically flavoured with rabbits and snails, chicken and sausages, and hedgerow herbs like fennel and rosemary. Seafood paella, good as they are, are very much a 20th-century invention.
Arroz abanda is the less famous cousin of the paella, and also hails from Valencia. In this case the fish is served first. The rice comes second; a deeply-flavoured dish in which the rice has been slowly cooking in fish stock until golden and aromatic.
Muria’s extraordinary caldero works on a similar principle. Plump, juicy grains of Calasparra rice are infused with nyora peppers and an entire head of garlic, giving a rich, russet colour to the dish and piquant notes to the savoury fish stock. Again, the fish is consumed first, the rice forming the crown of the meal.
Calasparra rice is grown in the mountains of Murcia, high above the ragged, sun-blistered canyon of the Valle de Ricote, where it enjoys a cooler climate and pure mountain water irrigation, first engineered by the Moors over 1,000 years ago. It was the first rice in Spain to receive a D.O. and is the most complicated; it takes three times as long to grow as other rice grains, it takes three times as long to cook and absorbs three times the amount of liquid. According to chef Pepe García of the excellent restaurant Pez Rojo (Paseo Marítimo 3, Cabo de Palos, Murcia, Tel. 968 56 31 09) who reputedly make the best caldero in the region (and I have no reason to dispute this) no other kind will do.
The arròs negre de l’Empordà (most typically found around Palafrugells and surrounding areas) is not to be confused with the squid-ink infused arròs negre of the Costa Brava. It is, perhaps, one of the least known of Spain’s infinite rice dishes, gaining its darkly mysterious colour from the slow loving cooking of the sofregit that gives it its robust, earthy flavour.
In his book, El Que Hem Menjat (What We Have Eaten), Josep Pla pretty much sums it up: “The basic, important, essential thing about the rice is the variety of fried ingredients used as its base. If the base all comes together and turns into a liquor, the rice will be monumental whatever else might go into the pot.”
Adapted from Colman Andrew’s classic, Catalan Cuisine, which has this recipe for what he calls “Catalonia’s greatest rice dish.” Take one medium-sized cuttlefish, cleaned with the ink sac reserved (you can ask your fishmonger to do this for you in the market). Cut into small pieces and cook about three minutes in olive oil. Add two chopped onions and cook until soft. Then add two ripe, grated tomatoes (discarding the skin). Add chunks of white fish (monkfish or sword fish are good) and a generous handful of clams. Press the ink sac through a sieve using a little water to help it go through and add the fish mix. Add 650g of Bomba or Calasparra rice and mix well. Slowly add about 1.5 litres of good fish stock to the boil with two cloves of finely chopped garlic and cook on a low heat until all the liquid is absorbed, and the rice is creamy to the taste but remains separate (it should not look like a risotto). Serve with alioli.