arroz – rice in Spain
A guide to food in Spain
Rice was probably brought to Spain by the Arabs at some point after 711, though other theories pont to the Byzantines at an earlier date. Spaniards consume some 8 kilos a year per head of this staple in a huge variety of recipes around what could be called the “paella theme”, which uses the characteristic short grained rice to absorb the flavours of the broth. Most rice consumed in Spain is grown in a number of areas close to the coast. Three areas (Valencia, Delta del Ebro, Calasparra in Murcia) are protected by denominación de origen. There is also a small rice growing area around Pals in L’Empordà.
Rice growing was restricted for many centuries by the presence of malaria. Such was the dread of this disease that a royal decree was passed in 11th-century Valencia sentencing any farmer to death who planted rice too close to villages and towns. For centuries afterwards, there was conflict between rice growers and the authorities who passed law after law restricting rice fields to wetlands that were unsuitable for other types of crops.
Frances Barrett notes on the Pals area:
From the 16th to the first part of the 19th centuries rice cultivation was of great importance. By the 18th century, nearly all the rice fields were located south of the river Fluvià. There were many stormy disputes between those in favour of rice-growing and those against it. The latter held that malaria was the inevitable consequence of the stagnation of the water. A popular contemporary saying ran:Mothers who have daughters;
if you do not love them enough,
marry them to Albons or Bellcaire;
and if you want them dead soon;
marry them to Vilademat
From that time there is also a curious transcription that can be translated as:
“In 1835, when the fevers possessed the region and extended mourning everywhere, Creixença Vilà, after the death of her husband, her children, Paulí, Antón, Climent and Caterina, and her brothers-in-law Narcís, Jaume and Josep, and realising that the Governor of Girona was not listening to the pleas of the villages afflicted by the epidemic, began a vigorous protest against the rice crop. The inhabitants of Albons, Bellcaire and Torroella de Montgrí met in the square of the last village and decided to drain the land and thus destroy the crop. That way, the epidemic would end in all the rice areas of the Empordà. Creixença was 47 years old at the time”.
Rice growing was discontinued everywhere in the Empordà except for Pals in the mid-19th century, although there was a resurgence for some 50 years in Bellcaire and Albons in the mid 20th century. Albons still celebrates an annual “arrosada” with rice from Pals and elsewhere in Spain.