As you drive down the short stretch of dual carriageway that joins Valencia, in Eastern Spain, to the beaches at El Saler during late May or early June you soon become aware of 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 biggest in Spain 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 glaring sun, and you get a close-up view of the dense reed ‘islands’, known locallyas matas. There are six of these small islands, where herons stride regally, and above you flit cattle egrets, little crested pochards, mallards and wigeon, a few of the 250 species that visit the Albufera, ninety of which use it as a nesting ground.
The boatman will point out the towns surrounding the lake, way off in the distance – Valencia, Alfafara, Silla, Benifai – 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 cover your knees.
The lagoon, one of the biggest in the Mediterranean, receives about eight times more water each year than it can accommodate without flooding the surrounding area and these days great sluice gates control the flow of water out to the sea, without saltwater flowing in the reverse direction.
The Romans first colonised the Albufera but it was with the introduction of rice by the Arabs in the 15thcentury that led to great swathes of the lake being drained for agricultural purposes. The rice growers didn’t have a healthy – or long – life. Due to the infectious diseases inherent in growing the crop, few lived to their 60thbirthday and illness and death led to the depopulation of the area, not helped by a series of prohibitions on growing the crop.
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 put in place during times of religious persecution to declare that it was a Christian house – although what they felt in their hearts 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. Perch, grey mullet and bass are the main catch, but the pearl of the lagoon is the 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.
Nature reserve, fishing ground, duck hunter’s paradise, the Albufera means different things to different people 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 Valencia.