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The city of rice: Alicante's enduring obsession with arroz

The streets of Alicante are filled with the aromas of arroz alicantino — the historic rice dishes found in restaurants all over the city. Just don’t mistake them for paella.

By Jessica Vincent
photographs by Ben Roberts
Published 2 Feb 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 2 Feb 2022, 09:40 GMT
The view over Alicante from the Mirador de Santa Cruz. The Concatedral de Alicante is prominent ...

The view over Alicante from the Mirador de Santa Cruz. The Concatedral de Alicante is prominent in the top right.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

The prawn’s head is wedged between my finger and thumb, its pink-red antennae flitting in the hot salt breeze like blood-stained ribbons. I slurp the shell dry, and it tastes of the sea mixed with saffron and garlic. It’s the taste of southeastern Spain; the taste of my childhood.

I don’t remember the first time I ate a prawn head straight from a paellera (a large, circular paella pan). I grew up in a dusty beach town 30 miles north of Alicante, where Sundays were spent sitting on plastic chairs, toes buried in the sand, eating yellow rice bulging with seafood plucked from the Mediterranean. The image of a child chomping on a prawn’s head, mouth saffron-stained like a crazed clown, sounds like the stuff of nightmares. But to me — a toddler who’d often choose olives over ice cream and alioli over chocolate — it was heaven on earth.
Decades later, I’m sitting in Restaurante Pocardy, on Alicante’s two-mile-long San Juan beachfront, devouring the head of the single gamba roja — the priciest prawn species in the Alicante region. It’s positioned atop my arroz mar y montaña, a surf-and-turf-style rice dish cooked with red mullet, Iberian pork and artichokes. I’d expected it to come served in the round paellera of my childhood. Instead, it arrives freshly baked in a llauna, a square skillet Catalans use to cook snails in.
 

Alicantinos enjoy an early-evening chat on the Esplanada d’Espanya.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

The flavour and texture aren’t what I expect, either: the rice, stained a brown-red instead of a paella yellow, is firm but sticky, almost caramelised. The fresh sprigs of thyme and toasted garlic alioli give it an intense, earthy flavour, while the fatty richness of the pork combined with the salty mullet is like breathing in mountain and sea air simultaneously. 

“When people think of a Spanish rice dish, they think of the Valencian paella,” says Guillermo Severá, a born-and-bred alicantino and executive chef at Restaurante Pocardi, as I pile in another forkful. “But in Alicante, we don’t do paella — we do arroces.”

Alicante’s battle to differentiate its arroces, or rice dishes, from Spain’s national dish is a long and complicated one. Paella itself originated in Valencia, two hours north of Alicante, during the 15th century, to provide farmers with a substantial meal that could be prepared in the surrounding rice fields. Paella, a filling dish that could be cooked and eaten out of a single pan, was the perfect solution. Ingredients that were readily available in and around the paddies — rice, snails, water birds, green beans and saffron — were added with water to a paellera, which the dish was named after, and cooked over a fire made from orange-tree wood. 

Arroz meloso de rape y almejas, a monkfish and clam rice dish served at César Anca Restaurante & Barra.
 

Photograph by Ben Roberts

While purists will tell you that paella should only include rabbit or duck, snails and green beans (with brownie points offered if it’s cooked over an open fire), what constitutes a paella today is often disputed. Over the centuries, additional ingredients from both coastal and mountain regions have often crept into the mix, blurring the paella’s identity. In recent years, the label ‘paella’ has been further misused, both by restaurants attempting to draw in tourists and by international chefs keen to bestow an aura of culinary heritage to their own bespoke creations (you’d be wise not to bring up Jamie Oliver’s ‘chorizo paella’ in Valencia).

“Because they’ve been promoted that way, any rice dish with meat or seafood in Spain is assumed to be paella,” says Guillermo, who holds a masters degree in Rice – Paella and Applied Mediterranean Haute Cuisine from the University of Alicante. “But paella is a recipe. There’s a list of ingredients and a very specific way of preparing it. Arroces, on the other hand, are much more versatile and open to interpretation.”
 

Guillermo Severá, executive chef at Restaurante Pocardy.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

“Because they’ve been promoted that way, any rice dish with meat or seafood in Spain is assumed to be paella,” says Guillermo, who holds a masters degree in Rice – Paella and Applied Mediterranean Haute Cuisine from the University of Alicante. “But paella is a recipe. There’s a list of ingredients and a very specific way of preparing it. Arroces, on the other hand, are much more versatile and open to interpretation.”

An alleyway descending into the heart of Barrio de Santa Cruz, Alicante’s old town.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

A traditional Valencian paella, Guillermo explains, always begins with the frying of the meat in the paella dish, followed by the sofrito (a mixture of vegetables, chopped tomatoes and garlic). Water is then added along with the rice and saffron, allowing the caldo, or stock, to form in the dish. Arroz alicantino, on the other hand, is prepared with salmorreta, a paste made with fried garlic, tomatoes and ñora — a sweet sun-dried pepper that gives Alicante rice dishes their dark-red colour and rich, smoky flavour. Most importantly, the fish, meat or vegetable stock, which is often left to simmer for hours before being added to the rice, is always prepared separately. “In Alicante, the caldo and salmorreta are everything,” says Guillermo. “If you get these right, you can add any local ingredient and it would still be an arroz alicantino. That’s incredibly exciting for a chef.”
 

Colourful facades and lush plants adorn the steep streets of Barrio de Santa Cruz.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

All at sea

With the scent of thyme and garlic still in my nostrils, I head back to the city centre along San Juan’s promenade, its beige sands wrapped in a technicolour blanket of a thousand umbrellas. I walk until I reach the marina, where one of the city’s best-known arrocerías (rice restaurants), Dársena, has been serving fresh-off-the-boat seafood rice dishes for 60 years. 

“The Valencian paella was born on land, whereas Alicante’s rice dishes came from fishermen,” says its director Cristina de Juan, who also lectures on the Rice and Applied Mediterranean Haute Cuisine Degree course at the University of Alicante. We share an arroz con gambeta y calamar (squid rice served with a prawn head emulsion) and, as we eat, she tells me that Alicante’s rice dishes are prepared with a fumet (fish stock), because the city’s earliest rice dish, arroz a banda, was once two separate dishes. 

Prawns are flash-fried at Restaurante Dàrsena, in Alicante.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

“Fishermen would use leftover catch to boil a broth at sea,” Cristina says. ”When it was ready, they’d eat the fish with potatoes and use the stock to cook the rice in a cast iron pot,” she adds, as tasting spoons of arroz negro (squid ink rice) and arroz al senyoret (a shell-free seafood rice) are placed in front of us. “A paellera was never even used,” says Cristina. “Can you imagine trying to cook in a shallow, flat pan out at sea?”
Since the creation of arroz a banda by Alicante’s earliest fishermen, more than 300 rice dishes have been recorded in the Alicante region, from arroces secos (dry rice) like arroz al senyoret to arroz meloso (creamy rice) with chickpeas and Iberico pork, and arroz caldoso (brothy rice) with octopus and artichokes. This diverse culinary culture is something that a new initiative, Alicante, Ciudad del Arroz, hopes to highlight. Headed by Alicante City Tourist Board, its aim is to promote and safeguard the city’s rice-based recipes. The next morning, I meet Raquel Hernández Carbonell, from the tourist board, who’s been working on the project since its inception four years ago. 

“We noticed that the quality of rice in our city was declining,” she tells me, as we walk beneath the swaying palm trees and fairy lights of the Esplanada d’Espanya. “Restaurants were using low-quality ingredients and even buying microwave paellas and passing them off as local rice dishes. I’ve lived here all my life, and I didn’t want to eat arroz in a restaurant.” With the help of the University of Alicante and local chefs and restaurateurs, Alicante, Ciudad del Arroz has created a certification system that promote those establishments preparing high-quality rice dishes in the city. Those who make the cut must only use one variety of rice per dish (such as high-quality bomba) and ensure their dishes are free of artificial colourants, preservatives and refined oils. The use of locally sourced ingredients is also favoured. “Arroz alicantino is a gourmet dish,” explains Raquel. “Our job is to ensure the highest standards are being met.” 

As well as the certification, Alicante, Ciudad del Arroz hosts events around Spain and further afield to promote the city as the capital of gourmet rice dishes. “I hope the city will one day be famed for its rice, just like Jerez is for its sherry, or La Mancha for its saffron,” says Raquel. “We want visitors to travel here for our food, but most importantly we want alicantinos to be proud of their culinary heritage.”

Chef César Anca prepares arroz meloso de rape y almejas (monkfish and clam rice) at  his downtown restaurant and bar.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

Later that evening, I walk through Alicante’s medieval old town towards La Taverna del Racó del Pla, one of 25 restaurants — along with Restaurante Pocardy and Darsena — that have received the Alicante, Cuidad del Arroz seal of approval. I sit at the bar, jamón serrano legs dangling close enough for me to smell the mustiness of salt-cured fat. Dates wrapped in bacon, and grilled liver with caramelised onions are all within reach inside a glass cabinet, but I’m here for the restaurant’s arroz con pata, a rich, creamy beef trotter meloso that was once on the brink of extinction. 

“This dish was going to disappear with my grandmother’s generation,” says José Juan Gómez, whose parents opened their first restaurant, Racó del Pla, just outside the city 40 years ago. “But my father wanted to offer something you couldn’t find in restaurants anymore,” he adds, handing me a cast iron dish swimming in bubbling, paprika-scented oil. “Now, arroz con pata represents everything we’re about: bringing back rice dishes our grandmothers used to make. In Alicante, we consider grandmothers to be the wisest chefs.” It’s a rich, salty, earthy dish with a hint of pepper, onions and paprika from the chunks of chorizo and morcilla. Its trademark butteriness comes from the smooth, spongy strips of pata (trotter), which have been slow-cooked in meat stock. 

The next morning, I make the one-hour ferry crossing to Tabarca, Alicante’s only inhabited island. It once served as a refuge for Berber pirates, but on this scorching July afternoon, it feels more like an amusement park: kids launch themselves off 18th-century fortress walls into the sea, while parents — snorkelling mask lines still visible around their eyes — feast on lobster rice metres from the sea. 

A warm evening on Alicante’s sandy San Juan beach.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

I take my seat at Mar Azul, an Alicante, Ciudad del Arroz restaurant that’s been serving the island’s signature dish, caldero, since 1974. The closest existing rice dish to the original arroz a banda, a caldero is served in two parts: the fish and potatoes, bathed in an alioli sauce, come first and pack an unmistakable garlic kick. The rice, cooked in a fish fumet that’s been simmering since 7am, follows shortly after, served in a cast iron pot.
“My mother learned to make this from Tabarca’s fishermen back when there was no electricity on the island,” says owner María del Mar Valera, who’s also president of the city’s restaurant association. “It was a poor man’s dish then, but she saw potential in it — now people from all over come to try it.”

I ask if Alicante, Cuidad de Arroz certification has helped the restaurant. “Our rice dishes were undervalued,” María says. “And Cuidad de Arroz helps people see that preparing these dishes right requires great skill and passion. In knowing that, I hope people will start to appreciate how special Alicante’s food is.”

I make the last boat back to the mainland by the skin of my teeth. My hair matted with sea salt and my head spinning in a seafood and alioli coma, I climb to the top deck to take in the view: the city of Alicante, a tangle of high-rise apartment blocks, blue-domed cathedrals and fortress-topped hills, rises out of the waves, the marina’s fishing boats bobbing gently at its cerulean base. I disembark and make my way to the city centre, its arrocería-lined streets scented with garlic and paprika. It’s the scent of history, but also the scent of something new.

Essentials


Getting there & around 
Airlines offering flights to Alicante from the UK include British Airways from Heathrow, Ryanair from Manchester and Luton and EasyJet from Gatwick. 
 
Where to stay 
Adults-only Casa Alberola Alicante, Curio Collection by Hilton offers 1920s-inspired suites with stunning views of the marina and the Esplanada d’Espanya. Doubles without breakfast from €94 (£79). 

How to do it
EasyJet Holidays offers three nights at four-star NH Alicante from £229 per person, including flights. 

More info
alicanteturismo.com

Published in Issue 13 (autumn 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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