If it wasn’t for the rice paddies of the Albufera, the paella, that emblematic dish of Spanish cuisine, would never have been invented.
As you drive down the short stretch of dual carriageway that joins Valencia to the beaches of El Saler during late May or early June you see what looks like a vast, vivid green cricket pitch badly in need of a trim. These are the rice paddies of the Albufera, one of the largest fresh-water lagoons in the Mediterranean and part of an area that was, in Roman times, the most productive agricultural region in the whole of the then known world.
Take a ride on one of the barcas, the long wooden boats that work the lake, with their bright umbrellas keeping off the heat of the sun, and you get a close-up view of the dense reed ‘islands’, known locally as matas. The boatman will point out the towns surrounding the lake, way off in the distance – Valencia, Alfafara, Silla, Benifaió – shimmering on the edge of the twenty-five square kilometre expanse of water, but the density of deep green that ripples by the bow disguises the fact that, should you step over the side in most parts of the lake it would barely come up to your waist.
It may have been the Romans who first colonised the Albufera but it was with the introduction of rice by the Arabs in the 15th century that led to great swathes of the lake being drained for agricultural use. The rice growers didn’t have a healthy – or long – life. With the infectious diseases inherent in growing the crop, few lived to their 60th birthday, and illness and early death eventually led to the depopulation of the area, not helped by a series of prohibitions on rice growing.
Most of the agricultural workers were Moriscos, Moors who had converted to Christianity at the time of Jaime I, and they were responsible for the design of the high-peaked cottages, barracas, with their steeply-sloping roof thatched with two layers of densely-packed reeds from the matas, and their low side walls, supposedly because no-one slept in beds in those days, they all slept on the floor.
The oldest barraca in the Albufera is only 150 years old, but they still follow the original lines, including the small cross at the apex of the roof that the Moors used to declare that it was a Christian house – although what they felt in their heart was their business.
As the lake was reclaimed for rice production the fishing diminished, although it is still an important part of the commercial life of the Albufera. Historically only the eldest son of each family registered with the fisherman’s association of El Palmar could fish the waters of the lagoon but this law is no longer strictly adhered to – even women fish these days! But there is still the annual sortido, a draw where the fishermen get to choose their pitch depending on their lucky number – a sort of fishy lottery.
Perch, grey mullet and bass are the main catch, but the pearl of the lagoon is the anguilla, the fresh-water eel, found in every local restaurant as all i pebre, a rich stew where a paste of almonds, garlic, saffron and parsley are blended into the stock in which the eel is cooked. But there can be no escaping the fact that rice is king and it should come as no surprise to learn that that icon of Spanish cuisine, the paella, had its origins in the rice fields of the Albufera, it’s still the place Valencianos themselves go to try one of the two hundred or more rice dishes offered by the local restaurants. Although of course, none of the recipes will be as good as his own.
A large part of the lagoon is now a nature reserve, and above the herons striding regally on the isletas you will see cattle egrets, little crested pochards, mallards and wigeon, just a few of the 250 species that visit the Albufera, ninety of which use it as a nesting ground.