Growing rice for paellas in Alicante

A huge pan of paella crammed with mussels and prawns with golden grains of rice is seen by many to be Spain’s national dish. But this hearty fare hails from Valencia where much of the rice is grown. Spain is the 17th largest exporter of rice in the world with much of it heading to north European countries including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands. 

In the Alicante region, the major rice fields are found in the Pego marshlands, just north of Denia. The traditional Valencian paella includes snails and rabbit rather than seafood but there are hundreds of varieties. While other popular rice dishes are arroz a banda made with fish stock; arroz negro which is rice blackened with squid ink; arroz en crosta includes chicken, pork ribs, black pudding and chickpeas; and arroz del senyoret with shellfish such as mussels, prawns and crayfish.   

The dishes are made with the local Bomba rice, which is much more absorbent than long-grained rices, so more of the flavour soaks in. Other rices need two cups of water or stock to one cup of rice. With Bomba rice, the ratio is 3 to 1, which gives an idea of how much flavour gets soaked into the grains.

Pego-Oliva marshland 

Moors introduce rice to Alicante

There are many ways to enjoy rice – in dry dishes such as paella, soupy dishes, cooked in the oven, in a cast-iron cauldron or over wood in a massive paella dish. The accompanying ingredients will often depend on the season or whether you are inland or by the sea. Fish and shellfish are more usual in beach resorts while rice dishes will be heartier inland with meat and sausages being more widely used.  

Rice and saffron were among the fine ingredients introduced to Spain by the Moors, who ruled many parts of Spain until the 15th century. Until the Moors planted rice in the wetlands, like Pego, in the 8th century, it was considered difficult to grow and only eaten by well-to-do families. The Moors’ irrigation and farming methods are still very much in evidence today, when you see the terraced vineyards and rice fields, for example.  By the 15th century, rice became a staple part of the diet, particularly paella. 

Paella in Alicante

Communal meal

Traditionally paella is a communal meal eaten by workers, such as farmhands in the countryside. They would have lit a fire and simmered the rice, adding whatever ingredients were at hand. This could be snails, local vegetables or maybe a stray rabbit that they caught in the fields. On the coast, fishermen would add fish and shellfish to their pans. Later the dish became a popular choice for fiestas and special celebrations.  

From becoming a rich man’s food to part of the everyday diet, rice began to lose its appeal in some areas. In the 1920s in Gandia,  the residents were so fed up of rice that they started to use thin noodles in their paellas. This fideua  (from fideu which is Valencian for noodle) is still being enjoyed in many restaurants today. Again, like paella, there are many varieties with some using thin noodles and other cooks preferring a thicker, longer noodle. 

The paella is also traditionally cooked by men over an open wood fire, with the fragrance from the branches added to the paella’s flavour. It is also eaten at lunchtime – which in Spain is mid-afternoon – and never in the evening. Guests can be served straight from the large paella dish with the sticky, toasted pieces at the bottom of the pan being considered to be the best bits. Paella really refers to the large,shallow dish that is used for cooking. However, over time, it has come to be used to describe the cuisine. 

Pego-Oliva marjal

Bizarre variations on paella

Valencians will say there are only two types of paella – one with meat and the Valencian white bean while the other is with seafood. As paellas popularity has grown, there are now hundreds of varieties, some including chorizo or a mixed variety including meat and fish.Many local people consider these to be inferior.However, each town or village will have its own variation depending on local ingredients such as paella with cod and cauliflower being a top choice in many Alicante towns. 

As the dish increased in popularity, many top chefs have tried their hand at producing some rather bizarre variations including some using quick-cook rice or having a Thai twist.Using anything but a short-grain rice, particularly Bomba, is an abomination in many people’s eyes. Whatever ingredients are used, the most important thing is to use the best rice possible.It is often eaten warm rather than piping hot as this allows the flavours to be further absorbed. Some serve it with alioli (garlic mayonnaise) although this can overpower the other flavours at times. 

Exploring Pego's marshes

A great day out to find out more about rice cultivation in Alicante is in Pego, where the Bomba variety is grown. Its picturesque position between the mountains and the sea provides a special microclimate, which is perfect for cultivating vegetables. The rice is grown in the Pego-Oliva natural park, where the marshland and temperate climate combined provide the ideal situation for growing rice. It is still cultivated using ancient methods which are less disruptive to nature and to the wildlife which live in and around the marshes. 

Rice growing is also good for the environment as it can be grown in salty soils or salt marshes. The cultivation of rice is sometimes the only way to keep the salty sea water away from the land. Bomba rice is originally from India but is now very common on Spain’s east coast. The grains expand during cooking, which absorbs the rich flavours of the stock. It is also less likely to stick to the pan or turn to mush, as other grains can when they are cooked too long. Bomba rice is difficult to grow compared to other short or medium grain rices, so it is usually more expensive. However it is worth the cost as it means your meal is packed with flavour and the grains are less likely to stick together.       

Pego Bomba rice