Drive along a straight-ish road out of Alicante on Spain’s Costa Blanca for around 45 minutes, through a semi-desert landscape that stretches out for miles before you like a roadrunner cartoon, and you’ll reach a restaurant called L’Escaleta. With two Michelin stars, it’s renowned for having one of the best and most extensive wine selections in Spain, with cousins Kiko Moya and sommelier Albert Redrado, in the kitchen and dining room respectively. It has, at any one time around five rice dishes on the menu.
Rice or ‘arroz’ in this region and the whole Valencian Community, which stretches from Castellón in the north down to Alicante and beyond in the south, is everything, ever since the Moors started cultivating it in the Albufera lagoon close to Valencia back in the 10th century. Arroz con conejo y caracoles (rice with rabbit and snails) is the most popular rice dish of Alicante and in Pinoso, a small town close to the Murcia border, there’s a restaurant called Paco Gandia, beloved of chefs Ferran Adrià and Joël Robuchon that is widely thought to offer the finest version of this dish. But there are others too – Casa Elías or Casa Alfonso are just two.
To make it, rabbit meat and offal – the heart is prized here – is fried off in advance and added to a broth with snails and left to infuse. This broth is then added to a wide pan, perfect for sharing, over fire – the fast burning, highly acidic woods of the region, usually grapevine or orange tree, are preferred – before the rice, usually senia or bomba varieties, which is often softened first, is added to the boiling broth, plus saffron. All the while the flames are licking at the pan’s contents, imbibing them with smoky flavour. The result is a thin layer of perfectly cooked, yellow-stained and flavoursome rice, with an even thinner layer of socarrat (the toasted rice at the bottom of pan), which is noisily fought over at weekends when the dish is usually consumed.
Up at L’Escaleta they do rice a little differently. Moya makes what he calls Arroz al cuadrado (squared rice) – the rice is served in what is actually a thin rectangular plate of sorts, precisely one grain of rice thick and finished in the oven. It has Iberico pork running through it and is topped with the softest roasted pepper. You won’t find any socarrat though, the oven finish sees to that, but for Moya, socarrat “in such small portions is not desirable.” Just one thing: don’t call this dry rice paella. The only paella is the original paella Valenciana – more on which later. Everything else is technically arroz, despite what you might have been told, or seen on holiday. “The name paella is much more international and rice or ‘arroz’ can lead to confusion, so for the foreign public and at the beach stands you will see paella in all the posters,” says Moya.
It’s not just dry rice though: soupy Arroz caldoso, or an Arroz meloso, which is more akin to a risotto, are just two examples of wetter dishes. There are even dishes made with orzo, a rice grain-shaped pasta, and also Fideuà, a seafood dish that uses broken pasta instead of rice. Moya explores all of this at L’Escaleta and also at he and Redrado’s other restaurant, RICE, close to the hugely popular holiday resort of Benidorm.
In terms of the rice hierarchy, senia is the cheapest and most frequently used at home, though it is easy to overcook, while Bomba is three times more expensive, but considerably more robust. There is another, Albufera, which is more durable still and ultra creamy. Then there are J Sendra, Bahia and Bombita varieties, to name but three more. All are grown locally, either in Albufera or in nearby Murcia or Castellón – it would have to be a pretty shoddy establishment to use imported rice.
Pesetas, Not Euros
Down in Alicante itself, with a terrace overlooking the marina, is chef María José San Roman's Monastrell, the city’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. Roman has been cooking rice at the restaurant for years she says, but in the last two has stepped up her game after meeting an organic rice producer called Eduardo Torres from Selection de Arroces – “I’m much better now I know him, he put me onto quality,” she says. Torres has worked with big name Spanish chefs such as Joan Roca, Martin Berasategui and David Muñoz, but he’s on a mission, he tells me, to get traditional restaurants like Paco Gandia to start working with a better quality of rice.“These guys don’t know much about rice … they’re cooking in Pesetas instead of Euros,” he says. “We guarantee field to table.” Torres supplies both Bombita, which is great for absorbing flavour, and aged Carnaroli rices to Monastrell, where dishes include creamy rices with smoked eel and onion; with rabbit, squid and langoustines; and with plankton, green vegetables and ‘cocochas’ (cod cheeks). “I’m very proud of them,” says San Roman.
Snacking on Socarrat
“The problem with socarrat is there’s never enough,” says chef Quique Dacosta in the development kitchen of his three-Michelin-star eponymous restaurant in Dénia, halfway up the coast between Alicante and Valencia. This triggered an idea: what if you could make a dish out of the soccarat itself? So, with an Arroz a banda, which is rice cooked in fish stock, as a base and by utilising chicken collagen, Dacosta and his team have found a way to create a kind of socarrat pancake: as part of their current ‘The Evolution and the Origin’ menu, the rice is cooked down in around 10 minutes in a small pan and what you’re left with is a thin layer of soccarat that is carefully lifted out of the pan and presented on a board. It’s like the ultimate snack. I don’t tell Dacosta this but I can imagine myself demolishing board after board of this, with my feet up, watching sports, and the locals too, apparently love it. It’s the evolution of a traditional dish. “I often wonder what comes first, tradition or evolution?” says Dacosta.
If tradition is what you want, then you’ll find it in Valencia. Also cooked over fire, though a little more slowly than further south, the original paella Valenciana is brimming with rabbit, chicken, and vegetables – green beans, sometimes broad beans, and artichokes if they’re in season, plus tomatoes, paprika, saffron and rosemary. There are variations in the towns and villages around the city – sometimes duck, snails, pork ribs and even meatballs are used.
But definitely no seafood – that was invented to satisfy the influx of British tourists to the Costa Blanca and Costa Valencia from the 1950s onwards, who were a little squeamish about eating rabbit – and certainly no chorizo, a la Jamie Oliver. Authentically, the closest you’ll get to seafood ‘paella’ is the aroz a banda. Some Valenicans will pithily dismiss anything other than paella Valenciana as ‘rice with things.’
Agronomist Santos Ruiz of the Arroz de Valencia, the Denomination of Origin for Valencian rice, is a little more diplomatic. “We have to respect whatever they do outside of Valencia,” he tells me. “The important thing is to use the proper rice and products.” Until 20 years ago he says, it was impossible for chefs to do anything new with rice, now they’re introducing ingredients like turbot and beef shin. But, true paella Valenciana is all about the vegetables: “There has to be enough vegetables or it isn’t a paella Valenciana,” says Ruiz.
So where to try a traditional paella Valenciana in a city with an almost immeasurable number of options? Pelayo Gastro Trinquet, a restaurant adjoined to the city’s most famous court for the Valencian sport of pilota, a tennis-like handball game, or Tavella, located in a 200-year-old house in the city’s Beniferri neighbourhood, are both solid options.
But the best paella Valenciana I had was around 25km to the northwest of the city in the small town of Benissanó. There, close to a 13th century castle is Rioja, a 46-room hotel with a 200-cover restaurant. Its chef, Vicente Rioja (above), is the fourth generation of Rioja chefs and he shows me exactly how to make the dish up on the restaurant’s sun terrace, where the grapevines are ready to be lit and the ingredients are all laid out in individual bowls: rabbit meat and offal, chicken thighs and drumsticks, pureed tomato and, lucky me, artichokes. There are green beans and broad beans, the latter having been boiled for 20 minutes and then left in water for 24 hours, and there is bomba rice.
Rioja starts with olive oil and salt in the pan, to which he adds the meat, which has been seasoned, starting with the chicken – it’s very important that all the meat is cooked through before any liquid is added, but that the heat is not too high at this point or it will burn. The green beans and tomatoes are added next, with a little pepper, and the tomatoes are reduced. Next, the paella pan is filed to the brim with water (note: not stock – in effect, the stock comes together in the pan), which is brought to the boil, as Rioja controls the heat by moving, adding and removing the wood. Then comes the rice and sprigs of Rosemary and as the liquid begins to reduce, the broad beans, artichokes, paprika and saffron.
Rioja tells me that the artichokes can make it more difficult to get the perfect socarrat, but we have a stroke of luck: I ask to take a picture of Rioja holding the paella pan and in doing so he quickly puts the finished paella back above the smouldering embers. It’s the extra seconds the socarrat needs. When we sit to eat, even chef, who has made so many paella in his life he couldn’t possibly count them, is impressed. The rice is out of this world: if the key to paella is that the rice absorbs all the flavour of the dish, then this is the perfect example, and it’s a good sign, says Rioja, that we’ve left much of the meat until the end, so engrossed are we by the rice.
Fine dining chefs in the Valencian Community are doing wonderful things with rice, but this is a dish to rival them all.