Rice has been cultivated on the Iberian Peninsula since the arrival of Moors in the 8th century. However, the first known document mentioning the rice fields near Valencia comes only from the 13th century (Llibre del Repartiment de Valencia – an act of distribution of territories re-conquered from Moors by the Catholic King Jaime I).
For most of us associating rice with picturesque water paddies in South-Eastern Asia, relatively arid Spanish peninsula seems to be an unlikely place for growing this water-demanding grass. Surprisingly however, the area near Valencia centered around the Albufera Lake has all to be an ideal place for cultivation of rice.
Large lake (actually the largest in Spain), swaths of wetlands, availability of the fresh water from the Júcar River combined with mild Mediterranean winter climate, hot and dry summers made it possible to locally grow this very nutritious plant. No wonder that such “golden” opportunity was immediately seized by Moors. Favorable local aquatic topography with the help of irrigation systems greatly facilitated the process of flooding and drying rice fields.
During the following centuries the “fortunes” of local rice cultivation were changing. In some periods, the cultivation was prohibited by Spanish monarchs due to mosquitos thriving in the rice fields and possible (and real) health risks. With development of efficient water treatment in rice fields and better sanitary control, most of problems related to stagnant waters (like for example malaria) were eliminated. This in turn allowed for uninterrupted rice cultivation activities in the region of Albufera.
It may be worth to note, that Albufera soils are clayey with high content of finely-grained limestone and typical for clay phyllosilicates as well as some amount of fluvial materials (from Turia and Jucar rivers). As such they are not very permeable, muddy when wet and hardening when dry what creates optimal conditions for rice cultivation. They include sufficient quantity of calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfates and chlorides but are quite poor in organic matter.
Before we go farther, few words explaining the basics of rice grains. The raw seed of rice (grain) has many layers. Its outermost layer is called the husk (it consists of two interlocking half-shells composed of silica and cellulose). In rice for human consumption, husks are always removed because our digestive system (unlike these of herbivores including cows, sheep etc..) lacks special enzymes (cellulase) to decompose the cellulose. The next layers in rice grain are thin films of fiber (called bran). In fact, this is the most nutritious part of the grain as it also includes proteins, fat and vitamin B complex. For long bran was neglected (“white” was the color of the day), so its layers were removed during grain processing in mills. The process is known as “bleaching” (whitening) and usually it is carried out either by abrasion of friction. The last phase of grains processing is the polishing. It eliminates small particles of rice flour attached to grains as the result of bleaching process, what gives rice a highly appreciated clean white-pearl appearance.
These days the bran is almost mandatory part of any healthy food, although it does not mean that the practice of removing bran from grains (not only in rice but also in wheats) ceased. Most grains are available in two forms: white (completely peeled-off) or integral (usually brownish with layers of bran).
The inner part of the grain contains an embryo (necessary for plant to grow from the seed) enveloped in thick layers of starch. In the case of rice seed, the starch is mostly composition of amylose and amylopectin. The proportion of these two components determines the cooking properties of the rice grains. And here we are coming to the Valencian rice!
Valencian rice (Arroz de Valencia) refers to the types of rice traditionally grown in the Province of Valencia and includes the following cultivars: Bomba, Bahia, Senia, Fonza, Gleva, Cebolla and Albufera. While each of them has its own properties and qualities, they all share some common characteristics. These are correspondingly:
a) Physical appearance: very uniform short-to-medium size grains, pearl color and slightly round shape. Let’s note that these days, on international markets more “fashionable” are long grain varieties of rice such as Basmati, Jasmine, Thaibonnet etc. They are also easier to process because longer (and at the same time “smoother”) grains have lower tendency to chip in mills.
b) Composition: high content of starch (it contributes to “white-pearl” shade of color and high level of absorption of liquids) as well as “right” proportion of amylose and amylopectin (assures protection from overcooking).
c) Cooking properties: resistance to overcooking (grains do not brake), when cooked it is slightly sticky however grains separate easily, high absorption of water (broth) and flavors.
Bomba rice (arroz bomba) – It is characterized by short grains, pearly-white color and uniformity. Due to high level of amylose the grains do not get sticky after overcooking, they can absorb large amount of water as well as rich bouquet of flavors and can hold their structure after cooking. Unfortunately, bomba crops have low production yields. For these reasons, bomba is one of the most expensive varieties of Valencian rice, usually served only in gourmet restaurants. Bomba rice is one of the oldest varieties of rice cultivated in the Province of Valencia.
Bahia and Sénia rice (arroz Bahia, arroz Sénia)
These varieties of rice are very similar to Bomba, however they have slightly longer but still “fat” (round) grains (kernels) and what is very important – higher crop yields. As the result, they are less expensive and so more popular in Valencian cuisine. Both Bahia and Senia are descendants of popular Italian rice – Balilla. Not irrelevant is the fact that their plants are relatively short, so they are not vulnerable to falling and so are easy to harvest.
Another popular rice variety – Gleva is a result of natural breeding process based on Senia and Bahia. All of them have smooth, creamy consistency when cooked while still preserving firmness of grains and have extraordinary capabilities to absorb flavors.
It is one of the new varieties of rice characterized by firm texture after cooking, yet extraordinarily creamy, juicy inner consistency. Once cooked, it does not evolve farther keeping its shape and organoleptic properties unchanged.
This short-grain rice comes from the area of Sollana in Albufera Nature Reserve. It was developed years ago with the aim to enhance rice’s characteristic required for “perfect” paella. The rice cebolla is appreciated for its ability to absorb flavors from broth and at the same time to keep grains’ firmness after cooking. Interestingly, its name “cebolla” (onion) can be misleading because there is a dish “Arroz con Cebolla” (rice with onion). Evidently, the rice Cebolla has nothing to do with the popular veggie, apparently, it gained its name from the family name of the producer of rice.
Following is a summary of characteristics of selected varieties of Valencian rice:
Grains of varieties of Valencian rice compared with Thaibonnet (long grain rice).
PDO Arroz de Valencia
Due to centuries long tradition of rice cultivation as well as specific characteristics of the Valencian rice the Council for Agriculture of the Government of Valencia took measures to protect the purity of traditional rice cultivars as well as to protect local producers of rice from “unfair” competition. The act creating the PDO “Arroz de Valencia” (Protected Designation of Origin of Valencian Rice) was established in 1997. In the frame of PDO there are specific regulations (Code of Practice) to control, certify and promote local rice cultivars. Currently Senia, Bahia and Bomba (the most traditional white and integral varieties of rice) are covered by these regulations.
Cultivation of rice
Traditionally, the rice-season in the region of Albufera has several phases starting in January. For the first two months of the year, the future rice fields are drained. Muddy soil is mixed with the organic waste from the last year harvest, moved and then left to rot (due to the fact that the region of Albufera has the status of the National Park, the use of chemical fertilizers within its perimeters is limited and the use of pesticides severely controlled (if not prohibited)). During the next two months (March and April) soils are thickening, forming a uniform “mass” so the sowing can start at the beginning of May. Right after sowing, the fields are flooded with water for the next two months. However, during this time at least one or two “dry-outs” for the length of 2-3 days are performed to kill algae (for this purpose the water is temporarily evacuated from the fields). In August rice fields are fully drained and the next month (September) the harvest follows. From October till the end of the year the fields are once again flooded, to prepare for the next year rice-cycle.
It’s worth to note that the region of Albufera has very favorable microclimate due to its location between the open sea and coastal mountains. At night, the rice fields receive a humid, warm sea breeze slowing the gradual ripening of grains and so preventing cracks. On the other hand, moderate waters temperatures and the absence of cold winds favors the much-sought process of pearling.
Additionally, heavy soils, due to their high level of impermeability allow for efficient management of limited fresh water resources and efficient use of nutrients (as they are not washed out).
Albufera National Reserve
The Albufera Park spreads over 21,000 hectares of coastal land with rice fields taking almost 65% of its surface. Over the centuries, due to the rice cultivation needs, the surface of natural lake was reduced from some 14,000 hectares to about 3,000 hectares today. Despite this disruptive human influence, the lake and wetlands are magnet for migrating birds.
Rice Museum of Valencia
Given the local status of rice, it is not surprising that Valencia has a Rice Museum. Located near the port in an old Moli de Serra (Serra Mill), the museum keeps original mill’s machinery from the beginning of the 20th century. It still works although in slow motion to provide live demonstration of the grain processing (separation of the husk from grains, sorting, cleaning, whitening and packing). You will also find there a lot of written information, illustrations and pictures presenting the history of rice since the time it was first “domesticated” some ten thousand years ago in China, through Valencian period till modern times.
Valencian Rice Dishes
Throughout centuries the rice became the symbol of Valencian cuisine. There are three main categories of rice-based meals: Seco (dry) – where the liquid (water or broth) is evaporated during the cooking/baking process; Meloso (slightly soupy-slightly creamy “risotto-like” rice) and Caldoso (sort of broth).
While the Valencian paella gained well-deserved world-wide recognition, Valencian rice-based cuisine has much more to offer. The most typical (we can call them “classic”) Valencian rice dishes are:
Arroz a banda
(“rice on the side”) – it is plain rice cooked in fish broth and usually served with “aioli” (sauce made of garlic and olive oil). Often it is served as the side dish.
Arroz al horno
(baked rice) – There are countless version of this dish. Traditionally it is rice baked in a red clay pot (casuela) in an oven, usually with tomato, morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), garlic, red pepper, garganzo beans, mix of chicken and rabbit joints or pork cut into small chunks and a bit of saffron. It can be backed either in a water or a broth.
– red peppers stuffed with rice mixed with tomatoes, garlic, saffron and baked in the oven. Usually it comes in versions “de bacalao” (with cod) or “de carne” (with ground beef or pork).
Arroz meloso con bogavante
– It’s a slightly moist rice (sort of “risotto”) cooked with a lobster or crayfish. Other similar dishes are Arroz de carranac (with crab) or Arroz de galeras (with seafood).
Sometimes the distinction between paella and classic rice dishes (arroces) is quite vague. While the traditional Paella a la Valenciana is a protected “species”, it also comes in numerous versions of which some can be easily considered as arroces. Good examples are:
(Black rice) also known as Paella Negra (Black Paella)– It’s the rice made “a la paella” with chunks of squid (or cuttlefish). It is famous for its black color and very intense flavor which comes from squid’s ink). Not to confuse with Arros Negre (Black rice, cultivar with naturally dark color).
Arroz del senyoret
– It’s a sort of Marisco Paella, however all seafood is peeled-off and shells removed. Obviously, it makes the consumption easier (as you do not have to get your hands dirty) and possibly more pleasurable. For that reason, in the past, the arroz del senyoret was served for higher-end classes (note that the name “senyoret” is derived from Spanish “señoritos”(gentlemen)).
We are excluding paella from this presentation, because it absolutely deserves its own presentation you can find here à Valencian Paella.
However, for completeness we will mention that paella has many variations, of which the most famous are:
Paella Valenciana – the traditional rice dish with rabbit and chicken (conejo y pollo)
Paella de Marisco (seafood paella)
Paella de Verdura (vegetable paella which in turn has several variations due to seasonality of veggies)
Definitely, the culture of rice runs deep in Valencia so you should have no problems to find and try any of the mentioned above rice-based dishes. However, to deepen your culinary experience you may consider visiting restaurants in small pueblos near the lake Albufera (for example El Palmar – for the good reasons called also “Paella Village”). It’s the area where the rice is grown since centuries and where once upon a time it all began, so you will have a chance to live through the most authentic journey to the “World of the rice”.
Try Nou Racó (also known as El Racó del L’Olla) located just at the shore of the lake. Note that the lake is also one of the biggest bird migration centers in this part of Europe so it’s a paradise for bird-watchers. On more romantic side – you can also take a ride on shallow waters in one of the boats, having chance to “touch” the Mother Nature and certainly to feed your emotional “battery”….
Valencian cuisine is also famous for its horchata drinks. Those familiar with South-American (especially Mexican) horchata may rightfully expect that Valencian horchata is a rice-based drink. Well, you will be surprised that Valencian horchata has nothing common with rice (despite the fact that rice is the hallmark of Valencian cuisine). The truth is that Spanish horchata is made of tiger nuts (plus water and sugar) so it has clearly different consistency and taste.