The way in which rice is cooked is based on its capacity to absorb the flavors of the accompanying ingredients. Rice is so versatile it can be combined with an endless range of foods – fish, shellfish, meat, vegetables and many others. Rice dishes are usually named according to their most significant ingredient, so we talk of shellfish paella, or rabbit paella. Or they may be named after their color, such as black rice made with squid and its ink, or golden rice because of the color of the crust after baking. The best-known paella recipe is for paella Valenciana, which combines different types of meat (rabbit and chicken) and vegetables with native varieties of green bean (garrofón, ferraúra and tavella).
Spain’s main rice varieties
The rice crisis of 1911 marked the start of serious efforts to obtain genetically improved strains of the rice varieties cultivated in Spain. Until the period 1930 – 1960: varieties grown in Spain, such as Bomba and Bombón, were tall, susceptible to disease and generally sensitive. In the 1940s, a variety called Balilla Italiana was introduced: this was a lower-growing became the most widely grown variety in Spain between 1946 and 1963. It was ousted by Balilla x Solana – an artificial cross between Balilla and Solana – which, by 1965, occupied 45% of the area given over to rice-growing and which remained Spain’s leading variety until 1972, when the Bahía variety (a Balilla cross, cultivated since 1967) replaced it in 50% of the rice fields.
From the 1960s on, cultivating and harvesting processes became increasingly mechanized, and producers found themselves gradually having to raise the quality of their product to meet the demands of a now better-off public. They also started to grow long grain rice varieties which until then had not been a cost effective option.
Being of tropical origin, they require high, constant temperatures and high moisture levels. Rice can be grown in dry terrain or wetlands. In the first case, the grains of rice need to germinate and sprout in dry ground which is then flooded with water; rice grown in wetlands is planted in ground that is already flooded. The latter method is the more common in Spain; even so, the seeds have to be soaked for some hours to make them heavier so that they sink to the bottom.
The first PDO designation for rice in Europe was granted to Calasparra rice which is grown in a mountainous area along the river Segura in the region of Murcia, the varieties being Bomba and Balilla X Solana. Bomba rice, the native variety is the best-known of the Spanish varieties is grown in rice fields, in Calasparra and Valencia, where it takes advantage of altitude, contrasting warm day and cold night temperatures, cool and clean water in steady circulation. Bomba rice has a small, roundish grain which, requires more water and a longer cooking time and does not break but swells, growing in size…This means it retains its starch so the grains do not stick together, an important characteristic when making paella. Also important is the fact that the grains easily absorb the flavors of the products they are cooked with.
Long-grain & round-grain rice
This rice comes from the Indica variety, and is much longer in size than in breadth. It has a spongy texture and the grains remain loose after cooking. In Spain, as in other European producing countries, the traditional rice is round-grain, but the production of long-grain rice has expanded in recent years to the extent that it is now the main crop in the rice-growing areas of Andalusia and Extremadura. It is mostly exported and is renowned in export markets for its excellent quality. Long-grain rice is very suitable as a garnish or in salads. This category includes aromatic rice varieties such as basmati and jasmine, which are ideal partners for meat, fish and shellfish dishes.
This rice comes from the Japonica variety. The grain is medium-length or short and has a greater capacity for absorbing aromas and flavors than Indica rice, so it is more flavorsome. Its texture, once cooked, is soft, smooth and moist. Most of the round-grain rice grown in Spain stays on the domestic market, this being the most widely-consumed variety in Spain. It is mostly grown in Catalonia, the Valencian Community and Andalusia. The two types of round-grain rice cultivated in Spain are Senia and Bahía, two relatively new native varieties. These broad, pearly grains are favored in the Spanish market because their composition ensures a creamy texture after cooking and absorption of the flavors from the cooking liquid. This quality is essential for many traditional recipes, especially paella.
Bomba rice is another traditional, native variety which, unlike others, swells instead of breaking up when over-cooked, retaining the starch and not becoming sticky. It is therefore much appreciated in catering. The grain is short and small and doubles in size when cooked.
Close to 900,000 tons of rice are grown per year in Spain. We´ve been cultivating rice for well over a thousand years and this started on the eastern coast in the 8th century. At the time, it was a rare product that was difficult to grow and was consumed only by the wealthier classes. Until the 1950s, bringing a crop to harvest was very labor intensive since the entire process of germination, planting and harvesting was done by hand.
During the 19th century, the traditional growing areas expanded and other new ones were created, such as the Ebro delta, in Tarragona (Catalonia). Since the middle of the 20th century, new rice-growing areas have been developed in Andalusia and Extremadura, mainly using imported long-grain varieties and mostly for export.