The Perfect Spanish Rice Dish

Valero Doval

A salute to caldero del Mar Menor.

To celebrate the golden wedding anniversary of Manuel and Maria Teresa, the elderly Spanish couple who are my parents-in-law, their seven children and four grandchildren and all their children’s and grandchildren’s spouses and partners whisked them off on a day trip to a place dear to their hearts: the Mar Menor, a shallow saltwater lagoon on the Mediterranean coast of Murcia known as the “minor sea” to distinguish it from the “major sea”—that is, the Mediterranean—that lies beyond the sandbar.

We had lunch that day at the restaurant El Hijo del Rubio, behind the fishing dock at Lo Pagán. It made sense to be celebrating this family fiesta at a family-run restaurant: In 1980 Inocencio “El Rubio” Hernández and his wife, Fina, started their first restaurant, where their children used to work, and in 2006 their son Antonio, “El Hijo,” opened this strikingly modern place.

A table with harbor views was set for 17. The meal kicked off with cold beers and plates of fried, salty almonds; thin slices of cured tuna, or mojama; and platters of baby sea bream and shrimp caught early that morning in the Mar Menor.

But these were merely preludes to a rice dish that sums up, for me, all the savor and exoticism of the Spanish Mediterranean as it used to be and, in very few places, still is. The basis of caldero del Mar Menor (caldero, for short) is a highly concentrated fish stock perfumed with the dried Murcian pepper known as ñora. This stock is used as a cooking liquid first for the fish—ideally gray mullet, rockfish or gilthead bream—and then for the rice, both of which are simmered in a big, black, high-sided iron pot called a caldero and served with alioli, a potent greenish-gold emulsion of garlic and olive oil. Once a fishermen’s subsistence dish cooked on the beach over a driftwood fire, caldero has been transformed by time and tradition into one of the glories of Spanish coastal cooking. Apparently a simple preparation, it is much more intensely delicious than the sum of its parts.

Grandpa Manuel held his fork in midair as he tasted the fish, then nodded in approval. The rest of us were already mixing up the rice with the alioli and eating it in big forkfuls along with morsels of tender fish. After the caldero there was, mercifully, no more to eat.

An English couple, coming in for dinner, shot glances at the battlefield remains of our feast. And I experienced a shiver of emotion that felt very much like pride.

$ El Hijo del Rubio is at Club Naútico de Lo Pagán, San Pedro del Pinatar. For more details, call 34-968/181-807.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.