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Rice from Aragon, a high-altitude product

Not many know that Aragon, the Northeast under the radar Spanish region, has been producing rice since the 19th century. Although, indeed, its cultivation is quite a testimonial. Around 4,500 hectares compared to other communities such as Delta del Ebro, Valencia, Extremadura, and Andalusia.

Arrocera del Pirineo is one of its main producers. It is a second-degree cooperative made up of three other cooperatives in Aragon: Virgen de la Oliva, in Ejea de los Caballeros, San José in Sadaba, and Osca in Alcolea del Cinca. It is precisely in Alcolea where they have the mill that processes and packages the rice produced by the farmers of the cooperative exclusively.

70% of this rice is distributed in bulk, containers such as a big pack of 1,200 kilos or sacks of 25 kilos. This year it has been commercialized only in Spain, although normally a significant percentage is exported mainly to Middle Eastern countries: Palestine, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. “We produce a variety called Guadiamar, of crystalline semi-long rice that is highly appreciated in these countries,” explains Susana Hernández, director of the cooperative.

But the jewel in the crown is its own brand, Brazal, sold directly to consumers. It currently accounts for 30% of the production, although the cooperative’s objective is that in the future it will be the major form of distribution and sale. Brazal is a well-known brand in Aragon, but it can also be found in supermarkets in other cities such as El Corte Ingles and Alcampo.

We asked Susana Hernández what is special about Brazal rice and why the people that taste it become faithful followers: “Mainly the growing conditions. We are 500 meters above sea level. This creates challenges when it comes to cultivating because we are in a limit zone, we can only cultivate two or three varieties as we only count on 150 days from sowing to harvest”, she explains. “But this makes the maturation of our rice take place in September slowly, and this gives it a lot of quality. It absorbs the flavor a lot and it holds up very well without costing the consumer as much as Bomba rice, a variety that is widely used to cook paella”.

That´s why this product is highly valued by the hospitality industry and by a loyal public who, if they try it, don´t buy anything different. But it is difficult for this brand to make itself known outside of Aragon because Arrocera del Pirineo continues to have the limitations of a medium-sized entity to promote its product. “There have been promotional campaigns for Alimentos de Aragon in generic terms, but that does not mean a direct benefit to us,” she complains.

Another difficult challenge is the sharp decrease in cultivated hectares in recent years. According to official data, 4,500 hectares were cultivated last season. Ten years ago, the figure was around 12,000. One of the main causes is that younger farmers are not attracted to this crop, which requires more pampering and care than other cereals, especially during the summer.

The maduration of our rice take place in September slowly, and this gives it a lot of quality because it absorbs the flavor very well. Our rice is perfect to make paella

Another problem according to the director of Arrocera del Pirineo is that every year phytosanitary products disappear from the list of allowed products, without finding too many viable alternatives. Susana Hernández thinks that the rural and urban world continue to mutually turn their backs on many, despite what might seem a change of perception after the arrival of urbanites to the countryside after the Covid confinement. “Agriculture has to continue to be the main economic engine for the small villages, and our farms need to be economically viable. Add to this the bad reputation of rice for being a crop that consumes a lot of water. But this is not the case, because it is planted in clay fields. You put the water in, and it won’t go away”. On the other hand, rice crops take advantage of land that would be unviable for other crops, because they are very saline areas. “If there were no rice, it would be desert, with the consequent damage to the native fauna,” she says.

For her, the future is not particularly optimistic, but at least she does believe that the hectares cultivated today can be maintained. What her main objective is to grow the volume of their own brand. “It is a slow and continuous work, but we trust that consumers will continue to believe in the quality of our product”.

Chefs Eateries and restaurants Healthy life

Jason Stratton, chef from Aragona. Echoes from my homeland in the Seattle Waterfront

Jason Stratton Aragona

Elena Fernandez

It could sound bizarre to interview a chef about his new project without having tasted his food. Well, not exactly. My most rewarding culinary experience since I came to Seattle a year and a half ago was my visit to Spinasse to enjoy their amazing squash ravioli.

I´ve made two reservations in Aragona that I had to cancel in the last minute, every mom should understand me, and you need to book so in advance that It´s been impossible for me to come. But I contacted Jason Stratton, Aragona´s chef before Christmas and I didn´t want to lost the opportunity to interview him. So let´s think in this post as a previous intro to Stratton´s culinary universe that more sooner than later will be tested in the field.

The love relationship between Stratton and my country began a long time ago in Granada. “I wanted to be a writer and I lived Granada, Lorca´s homeland for a few months. It was there when I feel deeply in love with the Spanish cuisine”, explain. In fact, he still keeps his scrapbook from that time full of ideas and thoughts.

But he needed two previous business, Piedmontese cuisine Spinasse and Artusi Bar, to come to his final dream of having a “not authentic but fully Iberian in spirit” Spanish restaurant.

The election of the name Aragona, coming from my homeland region, has a reason of being too. “I´ve read a lot about the Crown of Aragon and I´m fascinated about how they conquered the West Mediterranean and about this powerful influence in the cooking of the East of Spain”, says. “Visiting some different areas from Spain I realized this particular style could fit perfectly in the Pacific Northwest, where you can find many ingredients like veggies, seafood, fish and truffles too”.

Spanish cuisine is all about few but high quality ingredients, flavors and simplicity.  But as Steve Jobs said: “Simple can be harder than complex”. So for Jason Stratton looking for the best fresh ingredients has been a priority since the beginning. “We work with local producers and artisans to assure the best ingredients for our dishes, like Viridian Farms in Portland”. In this farm Spanish varieties like Padrón peppers, cardoon an borraja grow from spring to late fall.

But simplicity is not always easy to be embraced. When I ask Jason about which of the dishes in the menu is most misunderstood for the customers he tells me that the Black Cod in Adobo. “It´s fish marinated in vinegar and deep fried, so people think is a kind of fish and chips, low stuff”. I smile, because every andalusian would get offended to see his revered “pescaíto en adobo” treated as fast food.

In my opinion, this is the main challenge Aragon will have to face in his first year of life. The idea that an upscale dish needs bells and whistles to impress. And that you need to pay an extra for the best ingredients, although the technique, looks, maybe is not, so easy.

But Jason Stratton trusts Pacific Nortwest foodies. “Seattlelites are more interested than ever in healthy, local high quality food. I think the Spanish cuisine time is arriving”.

I agree. And I´m looking forward to come back to this airy, bright, simple but stunning place to try Aragona menu. Anyway, the wine list is so huge  overwhelming and well curated, Chris Tange is Aragona´s sommelier, that I will need to follow the experts advice and studying it in advance.

Because you don´t need to be Spanish to be a great Spanish food chef. You only need passion, talent and honesty. And Jason Stratton, this shy, kind and thoughtful chef that was elected as one of the best 10 young promises in the US in 2010, has all this attributes so far.

Aragona Seattle