From grain to plate: the story of Valencian paella and its homegrown, world-class rice

Cultivated in Valencia since the eighth century, rice is the beating heart of the city’s renowned gastronomy. But with the importation of cheaper varieties, the fight to preserve this historic grain — and the traditions that come with it — is on.

Traditional paella originates from Valencia and contains different combinations of meat, such as rabbit, sausage, chicken and snails.

Photograph by Ant Duncan
By Jessica Vincent
Published 18 Mar 2023, 15:00 GMT

On the southeastern coast of Spain, where the Turia River meets the Mediterranean Sea, the city of Valencia has been cultivating rice for over a millennium. Surrounding the city is 46sq miles of fertile land known as La Huerta (L’Horta in Valencian dialect), a network of sustainably farmed market gardens still irrigated using Moorish-built canals. Here, olive groves, fruit orchards and rice paddies stretch from Puzol in the north to Albufera Natural Park in the south, a protected wetland reserve where the Valencian paella — Spain’s most famous rice dish — begins its life. 

“Rice in Valencia isn’t an ingredient, it’s our identity card,” says Santos Ruiz, an agronomist who has been working with Arroz de Valencia Denominación de Origen to protect and promote Valencian rice since 1999. “Here, everybody is passionate about rice.”

First grown by the Moors in the nearby Albufera wetlands in the eighth century, rice has been part of Valencia’s history for over 1,000 years. Blessed with vegetables and meat from La Huerta and seafood from the Mediterranean, Valencia has hundreds of rice recipes, from creamy arroz meloso with lobster and squid to oven-baked arroz al horno with blood sausage and chickpeas. But the star of the show is Valencian paella, a meat and vegetable rice dish cooked over a hardwood fire. 

“Every household has its own version, but most Valencians will tell you that a Valencian paella has rabbit, chicken and vegetables,” says Santos. “The vegetables used depend on the geographical area and the season. Right now, it’s artichoke season, but in the summer we use local bean varieties like ferraúra, tabella and garrofón.” 

While recipes can vary, one thing that is non-negotiable when it comes to Valencia paella is the origin and quality of the rice. For best results, Valencian paella should be prepared with one of three highly absorbent rice varieties grown in Albufera Natural Park: Senia, Bomba and Albufera. 

“The way we use rice in Valencia is different from other cultures,” says Santos. “Instead of the flavour of the rice, we want to taste the meat and vegetables in the dish — we want to taste the landscape. That’s why absorbency is the most important quality of Valencian rice.” 

While the origins of Valencian paella are a little hazy, one likely theory is that the dish was invented by Albufera rice farmers in the 15th century. In need of a substantial meal, farmers would gather in the paddies to cook a one-pot dish with ingredients that were readily available in the surrounding fields: rice, snails, aquatic birds, green beans and water from the Albufera lake. Over time, cooking paella became more than just sustenance: around the paella — the large, circular dish from which the meal gets its name — farmers could catch up with friends and family as the scent of burning orange wood and sizzling oil filled the air, a tradition that continues in Valencia today.

“In Spanish we say: ‘No comes paella, vas de paella,’” says Santos. “It means that if someone invites you to their home for paella, you can’t just turn up to eat it — you have to be part of the cooking process. It’s where Valencians share family news and argue about how to cook rice. It’s a social event!”

An urban oasis located south of Valencia, Albufera Natural Park is thought to be the birthplace ...

An urban oasis located south of Valencia, Albufera Natural Park is thought to be the birthplace of paella. Today it provides shelter for up to 300 different species of wetland birds.

Photograph by Getty Images

Beyond its cultural and historical significance, rice growing in Valencia has also played a vital role in protecting the city’s unique environment. “The Albufera Natural Park is one of Europe’s best-protected areas for migrating birds,” says Santos. “And 70% of the park is rice fields.”

Albufera Natural Park — A Special Protection Area located just over six miles outside the city centre — is home to Spain’s largest freshwater lagoon, but it’s the 34,595 acres of rice that attract up to 300 bird species here every year, including the rare crested coot and the white-headed duck. “Most of the birds live in the rice fields rather than the lake,” says Santos. “If we stopped producing rice, many birds would disappear.”

Despite the cultural and environmental benefits of rice, Santos explains that there are challenging times ahead. With cheaper rice varieties being imported into Spain, Valencian rice farmers, who follow strict environmental and food quality standards, are struggling to compete with mass importation. “You cannot separate Valencian paella from the rice fields of Albufera — the recipe is Valencia’s landscape. If Valencia’s rice-growing heritage is going to survive, we need to encourage consumers to buy directly from Albufera farmers and always cook paella with Valencian rice.”

Fewer people cooking Valencian paella at home is a threat, too, says Santos. “Everyone used to learn from their mothers how to cook paella. But we notice that this is not happening as much with younger generations — that’s why we set up the Escuela de Arroz [school of rice].” 

Launched in 2012 by Arroz de Valencia Denominación de Origen, the Escuela de Arroz runs cooking workshops in Valencia’s city centre, where students learn how to cook various Valencian rice dishes using local Senia, Bomba and Albufera rice varieties. “Eating paella in a restaurant is nice,” says Santos. “But the tradition of paella — what keeps us connected to our heritage — is the experience of cooking it over an open fire, surrounded by friends and family. That’s the tradition of paella, and we must keep it alive.”

Founded in 1898, La Pepica restaurant is decorated with signed pictures of appreciative visitors including Ernest ...

Founded in 1898, La Pepica restaurant is decorated with signed pictures of appreciative visitors including Ernest Hemingway and King Juan Carlos. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Three of the best places to try Valencian paella

1. By the sea: La Pepica
Serving Valencian rice dishes to Spanish royalty for more than 120 years, family-owned La Pepica is one of the city’s oldest seafront restaurants. The specialty here is arroz Pepica, a shell-free seafood paella that was created in the late-19th century for Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla, who reportedly was unable to peel his own prawns.

2. In the city centre: Goya Gallery 
The ultra-stylish Goya Gallery has an impressive 19 rice dishes on the menu, from traditional Valencian paella with snails and artichokes to arroz seco (dry rice) with pulled confit duck and swede. While you wait for your rice to arrive, don’t miss beautifully presented Valencian tapas like cod and alioli croquettes and home-smoked sardines.

3. In Albufera Natural Park: Nou Racó
Nestled among the peaceful Albufera rice fields is Nou Racó, a romantic waterside restaurant with stunning views of the Albufera Lake. Start with all-i-pebre, an Albufera eel and potato stew laced with garlic and paprika. Then, choose from Valencian paella with chicken and rabbit or an arroz meloso (brothy rice) with blue crab and spring onion.

Plan your trip

Airlines offering flights to Valencia from the UK include British Airways from Heathrow, Ryanair from Manchester and Edinburgh and Vueling and EasyJet from Gatwick. In June 2023, Valencia will be hosting The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards with cooking demonstrations, gastronomy talks and pop-up dining experiences. For more information and tickets, visit and 

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