Calabardina Beach in Murcia, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
Tucked into the southeastern corner of Spain, Murcia is a little region with a big, long history that goes back, archeologists tell us, at least 8,000 years, when agriculture and cooking alike were both in their infancy. Today, Murcia's cuisine is renowned for a combination of high-quality vegetables grown in the vega murciana, Murcia's market gardens, and some of the best short-grain rice in the world.
Calasparra is the rice-growing region, high up on the banks of the Segura river, where rich alluvial soils and a steady supply of cold, clean, mountain water combine to produce superior rice in two varieties, Sollana (also called Calasparra) and Arroz Bomba, which was nearly extinct until rescued by chefs and growers just a few years ago. This controlled denomination rice is grown for quality not quantity—the region produces just .05% of all Spanish rice—but the slow-growing grain is highly absorbent, thus perfect for Spanish rice favorites from paella to soupy arroz caldoso.
One Murcian rice favorite is caldero murciano, similar to arroz abanda from Valencia to the north. Calasparra or Bomba rice is cooked in a colorful fish stock, resplendent with garlic and ñoras, dried spicy-sweet red peppers the size of plums, also produced in the region. The firm-textured fish used in the stock is served separately from the rice, which itself is always accompanied by a garlicky alioli, often thickened with bread.
If the Segura River and its environs have plenty of water, that's not true of the rest of this extremely arid tract of southeastern Spain where the terrain often looks decidedly Saharan. Mild winters and year-round sunshine, coupled with modern methods of irrigation, have made the Region a vegetable supplier for much of Europe, avid for Murcia's artichokes, peppers, fava beans, melons, tomatoes, apricots, and lemons. But global warming is already having an effect on local climate and there is a very real threat that available water supplies may dry up, sooner rather than later. If so, Murcia may go back to producing the kind of arid-land crops like olives, figs, and date palms that it was noted for throughout history.
With a long, balmy stretch of coastline, Murcia is also home to a great seafood tradition. Small, firm-textured shrimps from the Mar Menor, a highly saline lagoon north of Cartagena that is Europe's largest salt-water lake, are especially prized. Recent years have seen an upsurge in the lucrative but highly controversial practice of raising captive bluefin tuna in huge floating net-pens until they reach Japanese market size. But this has led, marine biologists say, to further decimation of the already precarious stock of bluefin, since the great fish are trapped before they can reproduce. (Responsible chefs and consumers in recent years have turned away from bluefin, substituting yellowfin and albacore, less threatened species.)
Iconic Dishes and Products of Murcia
Mojama: salt-preserved tuna, an ancient treat, often called the ham of the sea, served shaved very thin, dressed with a thread of olive oil and a few drops of lemon.
Michirones: dried fava beans, a delectable Murcian staple, cooked in a stew with chorizo sausage and hot and sweet dried peppers.
Pescado a la Sal: a whole fish, encased in a thick salt crust and baked in the oven, the preparation has swept over Spain—and the world—but it's said to have originated here in Murcia.
Olive oil from Jumilla
Zarangollo: a combination of two great Murcian vegetables, zucchini and sweet onions, cooked in olive oil, sometimes with a little finely chopped tomato added; eggs are broken over the top or stirred in.
Cordero segureño con gurullos: lamb with pasta. Gurullos are simple, hand-made flour-and-water pasta, shaped into short thin strips or nubbins.
Al ajo cabañil: Ajo cabañil is a very simple but tasty sauce made of crushed garlic and vinegar, sometimes with a little cumin added, usually served over tiny lamb chops or roasted or fried potatoes.
Pastel murciano: a substantial tart or pie, made with a lardy crust and filled with meats—jamón serrano, chorizo, veal, bacon—hardboiled eggs, peppers, tomatoes, and other tasty ingredients.
Murcia cheeses: Queso de Murcia and Queso de Murcia al Vino are two very similar cheeses, made from pasteurized goat's milk and aged for a brief period to give them a creamy texture; the second, as the name suggests, has been marinated in the strong red wine of the region, which gives it a deep purple-red rind. It is often sold in the U.S. under the name "Drunken Goat."
Murcia wines: Most of the wine of Murcia is made from the Monastrell grape, a clone of Mourvedre. Recent years have seen a big improvement in wine-making technology with the result that reds from the Dos Jumilla, Yecla, and Bullas are attracting attention in the international marketplace. [Go to Spanish wines]