Why Use Special Rice for Your Paella?
After all is said and done, paella is essentially a rice dish. Flavorful broth-laden rice is the foundation of your paella – the fresh shellfish, chicken, and chorizo are the garnish for a simple rice dish with complex flavors. Therefore the rice you choose is the fundamental ingredient of your paella.
The world has hundreds of varieties of rice. You may have several in your kitchen now – each one suited for a particular occasion. Long grain American rice works well with New Orleans gumbo. Basmati rice from India is the perfect base for curry. So it makes sense to turn to Spain for the rice you need for authentic paella.
Valencia produces virtually all of the rice in Spain. Growing in still water by the Mediterranean Sea, the rice commonly used for paella stretches out for miles in enormous fields. Certain strains of short-grained rice grown in Spain have a unique capacity to absorb large amounts of broth while remaining firm.
Each year a precious amount of the very best rice in Spain is cultivated in the village of Calasparra in the neighboring region of Murcia. The producers grow two historic varieties – Sollana (called Calasparra rice), and the coveted Bomba, which was nearly extinct until gourmet chefs recently recognized its superior qualities for producing the perfect paella.
Both types of rice are cultivated by hand in rice paddies along the banks of the Segura River. With little more than 1,700 acres a year, Calasparra produces just one half of 1% of Spain's rice production. The townspeople protect its quality by obeying rigorous Denominación de Origen standards. Their Bomba and Sollana rice are the only ones in Spain awarded this distinction.
Unique to the cultivation of Calasparra rice is an irrigation system employing ancient aqueducts built by the Romans and maintained by the Moors. Bubbling river water flows in channels from one family plot to the next before continuing down the mountain. At 1300 feet above sea level, the constant flow of cold fresh mountain water means that the rice matures more slowly than it would in the still flats along the Valencian shore. It produces a harder grain, which carries less moisture, thereby absorbing one third more broth while retaining its integrity.
Another distinction that enriches the nutritional value of Calasparra rice is that the farmers alternate the rice crops with other grains, or just let the fields lie fallow for a season. When it is time to plant rice, the land is plowed in early spring. In the first few days of May the fields are flooded and men, shoulder to shoulder, scatter the seed by hand. When the young shoots appear in two to three weeks, they are thinned. For the rest of the summer the farmers have to weed the field by hand in ankle-deep water.
At the end of September when the green of the grass becomes golden with the mature grain, the fields are drained and the rice harvested. After being prepared for market, both the Bomba and the Sollana are hand packed. About six women in blue uniforms and hairnets sew shut the individual white cloth sacks.
From beginning to end, Calasparra rice is tended caringly by the villagers. The result is the finest, most authentic rice for your paella.