Spanish Rice... and Shine!
Spain has cultivated rice for well over a thousand years—in fact, ever since it was introduced by the Arabs (711-1492). It naturally follows that rice, more versatile than any other staple, has been a constant in traditional Spanish cuisine. Use some garlic, tomatoes and any vegetable or legume available, and the result is a delightful poor man’s dish; use lobster or shrimp and it can rival anything on a king’s table
Close to 900,000 tons of rice are grown per year in Spain in some eight areas. Our focus here, however, will be on the three areas holding a certificate of origin, namely Protected Designation of Origin (PDO): Calasparra (Murcia), Valencia, and Delta del Ebro (Tarragona-Catalonia), all in eastern Spain, in order from south to north. Although there is no substantial difference, each of these areas grows the varieties best adapted to soil and climate. Yet less than 20% of all rice produced has PDO protection, as this covers only the traditional varieties and implies fully guaranteed homogeneity and quality of each PDO-numbered package.
As early as 1986, Calasparra rice was the first cereal grain to obtain a PDO in Spain. Calasparra is situated inland in the northwestern part of Murcia, in southeast Spain. The landscape is rugged, with haphazardly strewn pine-covered rock outcroppings, which at dusk and dawn become shrouded in a bluish veil melting together into an almost oriental picture. Who would ever expect this place to also be home to a vast expanse of rice fields? Yet the fields of the valley watered by the Segura and Mundo Rivers (for many centuries and as a result of the cool, pure mountain water and natural circulation system) produce widely recognized top-quality rice.
While all rice produced in the PDO areas is of the species Oryza sativa L. and subspecies Japonica, they grow a number of different cultivars, although the prized Bomba is common to all three. There is little doubt that Bomba is the star of Spanish rice. Its pearly core denotes a considerable content of starch, which confers it a highly absorptive quality; however, as a result of its hardness and special structure, it does not break easily and, thus, does not become mushy.
And this is also a reason for the frequent use of Balilla x Solana, the other PDO Calasparra variety selected especially to render a stronger plant with a higher yield. Its grains look similar to Bomba and also offer excellent absorption, but are less resistant to stickiness and require a watchful or experienced eye so as not to be overcooked. While Bomba is only produced as white rice, José Ruiz, director of the main cooperative Virgen de la Esperanza, explains that, in response to market demands, they are increasingly commercializing biological light brown and wholegrain Balilla x Solana, mostly for export
Paella Valenciana and much more
We are now heading some 250 km (155 mi) northeast of the Mediterranean shore. As opposed to Calasparra, here, after miles and miles of the eminent Valencia orange orchards, the landscape flows naturally into the wetlands of l’Albufera, a nature reserve just south of the capital city of Valencia, where the famous rice from Valencia is grown and which is widely recognized as the cradle of paella.
There is little doubt that paella valenciana is the paradigmatic Spanish dish. The fact that it has often been misused both here and abroad and has not always lived up to expectations is no secret.
Santos Ruiz, manager of the PDO Arroz de Valencia Regulatory Council in Sueca (home to the annual International Paella Contest), is clear: “We only grow tradition-related varieties.” Besides Bomba, PDO Arroz de Valencia protects two other prevalent varieties: the very similar Bahía and Senia, which also offer a higher yield and are thus less expensive, but are also less resistant to overcooking. However, thanks to ongoing research, a newly variety called Albufera was recently incorporated. It offers the creaminess of the Bahia and Senia, but with a resistance similar to that of Bomba.
It had already created addiction among a number of chefs. Yet, according to Ruiz, the increase in the use of Bomba has been phenomenal in both the domestic and restaurant channels. “There are more and more foodies who, unlike many home cooks, are less concerned about price,” he explains, and “Chefs, especially in larger-scale operations, are even less concerned about price, so Bomba is their best bet for a good result.” This also applies to exports. The production of whole grain rice here is anecdotal. Says Ruiz: “It’s just not part of the tradition.”
What is a tradition is to have paella at Malvarosa, the gorgeous beach in Valencia’s port area, lined some 20 lively beach restaurants, perhaps after a visit to the nearby rice museum. Next to the posh Las Arenas Hotel is La Rosa, one of the original eateries, dating back to 1925. In an open kitchen on a huge charcoal-fuelled cast-iron stove, Julio Saura prepares his flashy and widely-varying paellas, which are finished off with a two-minute flash in the oven, and several versions of hearty arroz caldoso (soupy rice) and arroz meloso (brothy rice). Of course, here the emphasis is entirely on fish, which comes in directly from the auction (lonja), just a stone’s throw away and well worth a visit at 5 in the afternoon, when boats enter the harbor to drop off their precious loads.
Belonging to the land
Some 200 km (124 mi) further up north, in the province of Tarragona, where Spain’s largest river, the Ebro, releases its generous flow into the Mediterranean, we find the Delta del Ebro and its homonymous nature reserve, yet another ecosystem surviving thanks to rice culture. “Rice fields are essential to the conservation and survival of these wetlands,” says Ignasi Ripoll, who heads an experimental ecological rice farm for SEO/Birdlife (the Spanish association for ornithology) named Riet Vell, partly financed with the sale of organic rice.
PDO Arroz Delta del Ebro also protects a number of varieties (Bahia, Bomba, Fonsa, Gleva, Montsianell, Senia and Tebre). Teresa Moya, secretary of that PDO’s Regulatory Council, says that besides the cherished Bomba, on the market we will find the excellent yet lower priced 100% Gleva Extra, mainly produced on the left bank of the Ebro River and commercialized by Arrossaires del Delta, and 100% Montsianell Extra, produced on the right bank and commercialized by Cámara Arrocera del Montsiá.
As regards the growing consumption of rice and its derivatives, Moya stresses one of its relevant characteristics: As opposed to other cereals, rice is gluten-free. Angelina Sancho, the young and highly motivated export manager of Arrossaires, notes that some 17% of their production is exported, primarily to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Just a few kilometers from here lies Mas Prades, a typical whitewashed building recently refurbished into a small hotel and restaurant, where chef Marc Curto is in charge of the kitchen. He is especially interested in retrieving old recipes and giving them new life through new textures and presentations. Proof of this is his delicious brothy rice with galeras (a local type of crayfish) and locally-grown artichokes, or his timbale of baldana (rice-stuffed blood sausage). Obviously Curto is a staunch believer in the relevance of the Slow Food spain concept and has, of course, applied for membership. “We have the sea, the river, mountains, orchards and vegetable gardens right here, so why look anywhere else?” he says.