What is the history of Rice in Spain?
When the Aragonese King Jaime I captured Valencia in 1238, rice fields extended as far as the city. In order to prevent malaria epidemics the king ordered the cultivation of rice to be restricted to the Albufera lagoon area. Since then the city of Valencia has expanded to the edge of the lake and once again huge rice fields almost reach the city limits. The flat marshland criss-crossed with channels is one of the most famous rice-growing areas in Europe. And it is regarded as the birthplace of paella.
The starchy plant Oryza sativa has been cultivated for about 6000 years. The Moors brought the tropical meadow grass, which comes originally from India and China, to the Iberian peninsula from North Africa – and along with it the necessary art of irrigation. The Spanish word for rice, arroz, orginates from the Arabic work ar-ruzz.
Over time farmers have constantly reduced the size of the freshwater lake in order to gain new areas of cultivable land. They call the small, fenced areas that they wring out of the lake to use for farming tancats. As rice-growing is extremely labor-intensive for a very low return, it is a second occupation for many small farmers who also work in farmer’s cooperatives or perhaps in industry.
After the rice is sown in the spring, the fields of the Albufera are flooded. The seeds begin to germinate at temperatures of about 54 °F. When the plants are some 8 inches tall, they are pulled out in clumps and then planted separately 4 inches apart in another rice field, which is already flooded. The water can be drained off and the rice harvested from September.
After it has been threshed, the rice is dried in the sun or in mechanical driers. The husks are then removed from the grains and the rice is then polished between millstones to give it its familiar white shine. The rice fields are again flooded in winter in order to regenerate them. To irrigate 2 1/2 acres, 1,235,990 cubic feet of water are required per year.
Most of the rice grown in Spain is the Japanese subspecies, in particular the Senia and Bahia varieties. These medium-grain types can absorb a lot of water and are particularly suitable for paella and other rice dishes, as well as for sweet dishes. Long-grain rice only accounts for 6 percent of that grown in Spain. It absorbs less liquid, has a shorter cooking time, and is usually served as an accompaniment rather than the main ingredient. Brown rice is not often found in Spanish cuisine.
Albuhaira, the little sea, was the name given by the Moors to the bay south of Valencia. At the time of the Romans it was an impressive 116 square miles in size, but over the centuries it has been increasingly reduced through silting up – a process that farmers have helped to accelerate over the last 200 years by filling up parts of the lagoon in order to gain new land for cultivating rice. The lake was thus reduced to a tenth of its original size.
Today a 3940 foot wide sand bar, the Dehesa del Saler, separates the lake from the open sea. In 1986 the Albufera and adjoining Dehesa were declared a national park. It is an important habitat and breeding ground for numerous types of waterfowl. The Albufera is one of Spain’s most valuable humid regions. The farmers who sow rice at the edge of the lake must respect the ecological balance of this sensitive area.