Rice in Spain

Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008

It’s hard to believe today, but rice was a late-comer into the Spanish kitchen, another of the precious culinary gifts brought by the Arabs when they ruled much of Spain in the centuries before 1492. Today it’s more widely cultivated and used than anywhere else in the Western Mediterranean, in everything from soups to salads to sweets. But there is one Spanish rice dish that’s celebrated above all and that, of course, is paella. Italians have their risotto and Greeks and Turks their pilaff, but I would venture to say that Spanish paella is the best-known, the most widely prepared outside its region of origin and, probably as an unfortunate consequence, one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented dishes in the whole Mediterranean culinary repertoire. It began as a simple but festive country dish from the rice paddies of Valencia, arroz a la valenciana -- a combination of good, locally grown, round-grain rice and fresh vegetables from the huerta, Valencia's market gardens, along with farmyard chickens or rabbits and snails gleaned from the fields. This hearty combination is cooked over an open fire, preferably of fragrant orange-wood or pino marittimo (sea pine), and preferably too either on the beach or in the very fields in which the vegetables are growing. A marvel of strictly local, regional gastronomy, paella somehow got taken up by the mass tourism sweeping the Spanish coastlines in the 1960s and carried around the world. In the process, it became all too often a travesty, a debased mishmash of ill-assorted and overcooked ingredients, none of them very fresh, indeed a sort of kitchen rubbish bin of leftovers combined with frozen peas, canned pimientoes, and rice cooked sometime in the previous week and reheated in cheap, often close to rancid olive oil.

On its home ground, however, in the rice-growing regions of the east coast of Spain, paella can still be a marvelous dish--"but not just a dish," Catalan historian Jaume Fàbrega told me, "paella is a social fact." As such, it changes according to the gender of the person who is preparing it. On Sundays, Fàbrega said, paella is made by men over an open fire, on other days it's prepared by women, who make it at the kitchen stove. The name paella, Fàbrega told me, can’t be found before the late 19th century, but the name alone, he said, is recent, while the dish itself may be as ancient as rice in Spain. The oldest recipe he has found for what we call paella today, he told me, is in an early 18th century manuscript in the Episcopal Library in Barcelona, in which the anonymous compiler drew a distinction between arros a la catalana and arros a la valenciana, the former requiring more liquid--1 1/2 maitadellas, (about 3 cups, using the old Catalan measure) to the pound of rice, where arros a la valenciana calls for just 1 maitadella (about 2 cups), making a drier, more paella-like preparation than the sightly soupier Catalan version. By the late 19th century, arroz a la valenciana, or paella, had already become a national dish.

But the proper vocabulary, says Jose Puig, an exceptional cook and wine-maker whom I've watched as he made a number of different rice dishes in an open-air fireplace at his home near Vendrells on the Catalan coast, is paella for the pan and arroz for what is cooked in it. In other words, you do not eat a paella; you eat the arroz that has been cooked in the paella. In its Valencian homeland, the rice is usually eaten warm but not hot and the whole dish, the paella in which it has been cooked, is placed in the center of the table, with everyone eating from his or her section, leaving the center, with its pleasantly browned and crispy crust, called soccarat, to be scraped up from the bottom of the pan at the end—the best part of the whole thing, Spaniards say.

There are three important factors in the success of the dish, Puig says:
• The rice must be cooked in a flat-bottomed pan;
• The fire must be evenly distributed and controllable beneath the pan
--not easy with a live fire: You begin with a very vigorous fire for the first 8 to 10 minutes, then spread the embers so that all parts of the paella receive an equal amount of heat and it continues to cook for another 20 minutes, after which, in the last 5 minutes or so the pan is left over embers alone, no flames; in the end, all the liquid should be absorbed by the rice which is then covered for 10 minutes before serving it;
• Finally, and most important, the rice must be a round-grain Spanish rice like arroz bomba--I have seen suggestions that Italian risotto-type rice will do just as well, but I have not had good success with it and fine Spanish cooks like Puig absolutely reject the idea: "You might get a nice risotto," he said, "but you wouldn't get paella."

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