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paella rice

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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”.

Companies Products

Culinary collective: 15 years offering Spanish gourmet food all around the US

Elena F. Guiral 

Catalonians have always been great traders thanks to their geographical position in the NE of Spain in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. From one coast to another Pere Selles arrived to the Pacific NW more than 15 years ago to bring a piece from Spain to the US.

He began his company, today Culinary Collective, as many things happen in life, in an informal and adventurouos way. “A friend asked me if I could sell his olive oil here in Seattle so I began to see chefs all around the city with all my warehouse in the trunk of the car,” remembers.

One of his first clients was Tom Douglas, who loved his olive oil and his romantic way of working with a high dedication to an artisanal and high quality product. Soon the chefs asked for more products for their restaurants and Pere decided to incorporate more gourmet foods to his portfolio and to rent his first warehouse.

Today Culinary Collective is the most important Spanish gourmet food importer, with more than 150 references, and they deliver delicacies all around the US. Here in Seattle you can find their products at PCC, Metropolitan Market, Whole Foods, The Spanish Table and De Laurenti in Pike Place Market. But La Tienda.com, the most important on line Spanish food seller make them available to every corner in the country too.

When Pere looks for new products his criteria is clear: small-scale production of flavorful heritage food using traditional and environmentally friendly techniques and high quality.

Pere SellesThat´s why wandering through his Lynwood warehouse was something similar to walking in heaven for a Spaniard food lover like me: piles of paella rice bags, chicken broth, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, chocolate, canned vegetables and fish, Sherry Vinegar… and anchovies stuffed olives from L´Escala, one of the most beautiful towns in Catalonia, a flavor really difficult to find here in the US. And It´s fun to realize how The Culinary Collective is based in Seattle, the paradise of local, fresh and sustainable ingredients in the US.

Some of the products keep the original brand as in Spain, others are gathered by the brand “Matiz” created by the company. “We wanted not only to offer high quality but a beautiful package customized for the US consumers”.

A few years ago the company began to work with the Andean Region to bring diferent flavors mainly grains and flours know for being healthy, flavorful and gluten free, offering an amazing carbs alternative to people with gluten intolerance. These products are reunited under the label Zocalo.

One of the new brands that Culinary Collective are working with is Aneto 100% natural, a Spanish Company who is specialized in offering chicken and paella artisanal broths. They participated as sponsors in the International Food Bloggers Conference celebrated in Seattle last September to show how to prepare a tasty paella saving time and effort.

In fact, this is the main challenge for Pere Selles, co-founder of the company. “Our main clients are US citizens who have visited Spain and love our food and our traditions, but sometimes they don´t have the knowledge or experience to take full advantage of our products because there is nobody in the aisle of the supermarket to help them,”, explains.

The lack or Spaniard´s restaurants in the city, compared to French and Italian ones, don´t help to make seattlelites feel more familiar with our country´s cuisine too. “As I have experience working in restaurants in Chicago, sometimes I think I should go on that direction one day”, concludes Pere with a mysterious smile. I have to say It wouldn´t be a bad idea at all.

bodegon culinary collective