A century ago, the Spanish writer and journalist Wenceslao Fernández Flórez received an invitation from his colleagues in the Alicante Press Association to visit the province. After that trip Fernández Flórez wrote a series of articles in the ABC newspaper titled: Memoirs of a Devourer of Rice, in allusion to the great number of different rice dishes he had sampled during his trip. Because as Don Wenceslao put it: “Many of the kind people of Denia, Alcoy, Elda and Novelda discovered in the long list of different rices that I sampled that an important seasoning was missing, and included it.”
People from Alicante boast that they prepare at least 365 different rice dishes, one for each day of the year. Dishes that, broadly speaking, can be grouped into three families: the soupy rices; the ones baked in an oven in a casserole; and the ones served from a flat, low pan called a paella (or paellera). Each one has its respective occasion: for daily consumption, for eating during field work, and at social gatherings –in a paella and cooked outdoors over a wood fire.
The arroz con costra (rice with a crust) is one of the most typical in Alicante, and can be classified in the family of oven rices. Originally the crust was obtained by placing atop the rice a metallic device called a costrera into which were placed glowing embers. Today that effect is achieved with the grill in an oven.
This kind of dish contains meats –perhaps pork, maybe rabbit– and sausages of different kinds such as butifarra, longaniza or chorizo. In addition to tomato, chickpeas are sometimes used. It’s topped off by some beaten egg that gives it the characteristic crust. Obviously a very filling dish.
But true devourers of rice –a term also used by Josep Pla in his book Lo que hemos comido (“What We’ve Eaten”)– can consume not one but several dishes. The Gastrosoler blog reproduces the book Gastronomía Alicantina, written by José Guardiola in 1944, which describes a meal in 1880 organized in honour of the politician Emilio Castelar. But at one in the afternoon, the hour set for the event, he still hadn’t showed up. After waiting for an hour and a half, everyone sat down to eat, and that’s when Castelar arrived. He not only consumed the first dish, arroz con costra, but asked for a second serving. So as not to spoil the meal for his hosts, Castelar didn’t explain his late arrival. But since in the end the truth always comes out, it was later learned that he had just come from another luncheon… where he had also put away two servings of arroz con costra.