The relationship between paella and sailing is closer than you may think. Rice was historically introduced in Valencia during the Muslim presence in the region between the years 714 – 1238, along with many other crops and a deep cultural imprint. However it was later in the 18th Century with the surge of agriculture when rice farmers made vast incursions to reclaim land from the lagoon and expand their crops. However paella originated among peasants in the vegetables farmland surrounding the city of Valencia. This is often cited as a main reason to sustain that there is no original, unique recipe. Peasants adapted it to the season’s available ingredients and own taste and ability.
Sailing in Southern Europe is known to have originated several thousand years prior the first reference of a latin-rigged sailing vessel in the Mediterranean, found in a low-relief on a Greek tombstone from the 2nd century BC, today on display in the National Museum of Athens. These vessels and technique were introduced, developed and perfected in the Peninsula by the Muslims. They referred to the lagoon we know as La Albufera as the “little sea”.
My lifetime holiday environment is the sea shore area south of Valencia city in Spain, next to the marshland and rice fields surrounding La Albufera and close to the fishermen’s village of El Perello and the namesake southernmost outlet of La Albufera into the sea, which has for decades served as a natural harbour for the local fishing fleet. La Albufera is a fresh water shallow lagoon and natural park of wetland situated south of the city of Valencia that has historically deeply influenced the life of Valencians. Between the lagoon and the sea there is a Mediterranean pine forest called El Saler that extends to the very seawater front.
The drives behind the local wooden boat building industry and long established push pole boats and sailing tradition in La Albufera have been fishing, earth moving works during the expansion of rice farmland, subsequent agriculture works and transport of people and goods between Valencia and the villages around the lagoon like Silla and Catarroja. Until the 18th Century, before the large scale reclaiming of land, the lagoon extended to the outskirts of the city of Valencia. Much of the workforce fishing in the lagoon or working on the rice fields until about one century ago used to commute by boat from the district of Ruzafa in Valencia and other villages around La Albufera. Different sizes and hull shapes, developed and referred by the locals as barca, barquet, barquetot and marimatxo, each one adapted to the specific purposes the were commissioned for. The general use of sailing boats as work or transport vessels died in the 20’s of the 20th century when the use of combustion engine propulsion took over to prevail until today.
Boat building is still marginally alive in two ways. Locals use traditional wooden boat building techniques to assemble very simple motor vessels with no cabin that they use to take tourists around the lagoon. More complex is the construction of latin-rigged sail boats and this is only carried out by specialists who have been able preserve the boat building skills they inherited from former generations along with proportion word-of-mouth rules, basic building plans, boat part stencils, tools and tricks. Even the use of a specific type of wood for each part of the boat replicates their old predecessors. These sailboats are purchased by local keen sailors who use them for leisure boating and race them at regular latin-rig regattas on La Albufera. These races may be watched on the water from the private hire touring boats.
La Albufera itself is still today used for farming and fishing various species including seabass and eel. A traditional eel, potato and garlic stew known as “allipebre” is very popular in the area along with paella and various rice dishes.
El Palmar was only two centuries ago a little island in the southern part lagoon, used a daytime base for commuting fishermen and farmers. They built barracas, mainly to keep their fishing tackle and agricultural tools. Barraca is an approx. 9 by 5 square metre typical, two-storey, basic farmer house built with adobe and a steep, thatched roof. The reclaiming of land for rice farming purposes ended over time transforming El Palmar into a peninsula which today is paella restaurant themed village. Together with the Malvarrosa beach promenade in the city of Valencia, El Palmar is where the locals go to appreciate genuine rice cuisine, visit traditional barracas kept as historical testimony and embark on a
hire boat to enjoy spectacular sunsets behind La Albufera.
For a detailed description of sailing boats used in La Albufera, construction techniques and tools and their role in historical fishing and farming activities, see La Vela Llatina a l’Albufera, a book by various specialist authors published with the occasion of an exhibition with the same title organised by the Ethnological Museum of Valencia. The book in Spanish may be consulted for free here