The Sustainable Paella by Zev Robinson, 2014

We wondered what it was people did there, seeing nothing but a landscape dotted with enormous boulders, some wooded areas and shrubs, no houses or buildings, and a few sheep but no shepherds during the 70 kilometre drive from the provincial capital of Zamora to Fermoselle, Arribes del Duero’s largest town with 3,000 inhabitants.

I had been invited to film some of the wineries in this unknown region in NW Spain bordering Portugal. Soon stories began to emerge, mostly from elderly people, a man who still uses a mule to till the earth, a couple who talked about how they went everywhere on foot and mule from one village to another and never owning a car or tractor, and a man who had spent his whole life weaving blankets with a hand-loom in a closet-sized room in silence, starting by helping his father and his older brothers from the age of seven before and after school. His family had all the work they could handle then; now, over eighty, he teaches the dying craft to a few people interested in it as a hobby.

Arribes: Everything Else is Noise / Arribes: el resto es barullo from Zev Robinson

What was striking, too, was that we met several people who moved there from other cities and countries who wanted something else, a different lifestyle and set of values. An English-Spanish couple, biologists who had always lived in big cities, decided to move there and make wine and cheese; an advertising executive and his family from Madrid stumbled upon the area, started spending more and more time there until they decided to move; a doctor and his wife moved from Barcelona and she started producing homemade jams and preserves; an English winemaker moved there, looking for a challenge and something yet to be done.

They all took on, to a great extent, the lifestyle and habits of Arribes, while retaining the point of view that outsiders have which in turn helped me gain perspective as I made my documentary. Professional and business dealings beyond northwest Spain have also given the region something extra.

Each interview was a different story that led to another one that required an essential return visit, a total of six over a period of three years. Slowly, a picture emerged of a sustainable ecosystem, defined as an area where food sources and recycling are in close proximity to its inhabitants. Not too long ago, animals were considered part of the family and lived in people’s homes, and people talked about their fondness for the animals they bred, in spite of knowing and accepting they would soon kill them for food.

The inhabitants still produce up to 90 percent of their own food, including killing pigs in December that provide food for their families over the course of the coming year, keeping chickens, and maintaining vegetable plots. In Fermoselle, the homes have wine cellars that were used to make wine for personal use, a tradition that many still carry on.

There was also a certain amount of trade – among neighbours, but also with adjoining regions, including smuggling across the Duero River that divides Spain and Portugal in that region. One smuggler told about swimming across the river as a nine year old boy with a rope that would then be used to help pull merchandise – everything from goats to coffee to sewing machines – from one side to the other, and then playing cat and mouse with the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national police force, not to get caught and the merchandise confiscated.

Things changed in the late fifties and sixties, and at sixteen, he left Arribes and, like countless other Spaniards, made his way to France. There, he learned to read and write and worked his way up to be a corporate executive, returning to his native home when he retired.

A hydroelectric dam was built in the region and people started working on that rather than subsistence level agriculture, and there was a general migration from Arribes to larger cities and better opportunities, as there was all over Spain.

One person told us off-camera that when those who had left would come back for a visit, they would burn money to show how well they were doing, all things being relative because they might be a truck driver or factory worker, but at least no soil was under their fingernails and they had money to burn, literally.

It may be a sustainable ecosystem, but for the most part, sustainable ecosystems are not what people want. It involves hard work, being at the mercy of the weather and fluctuating prices, and as most have left for the lure of what unsustainable cities have to offer, perhaps its not all that sustainable.

Rural depopulation is a major problem on a wider scale, not just in Spain but across the globe. Yet certain areas have maintained their agricultural production much better than others, and thus their small villages and towns, and thus a more sustainable model where, again, the population, its food sources and recycling are in close proximity.

Drive southeast from Arribes to the other side of Spain, and you get the Mediterranean coastline of the Valencia Autonomous Community or Region, consisting of the provinces of Valencia, Alicante and Castellon, with the city of Valencia being the region’s capital. Because of my previous documentaries on food and agriculture, I was commissioned to direct Valencian Roots on similar themes in that region, and the difference between it and Arribes could not be more striking.

Arribes’ barren, quiet, underpopulated landscape dotted with sheep and villages of less than a hundred people providing for themselves have been exchanged for a thriving tourist industry,   many of them sun-burned Brits and northern Europeans on cheap holiday packages lodged in large hotels, and coastal cities filled with retirees looking for an easier pace in a warmer place; in some towns you would hardly know you are in Spain but for the sun and sand.

Move away from these coastal towns, however, and the Valencia region has an important agricultural sector, including oranges, rice and wine, driven partly   by exports, partly by tourism.

Although Alicante’s native Monastrell is a lesser known grape variety than Spain’s premier Tempranillo and the Rioja region, wineries there have been able to capitalise on the fact that everyone has heard of Alicante to introduce their wines into the UK and other foreign markets.

Arribes, on the other hand, once covered in vineyards including on the terraces along the Duero River, now only has 700 hectares left. The wineries are having difficulty selling their wines from an unknown region in an increasing competitive market, creating a vicious circle where the less the wineries sell, the less money they have to promote their region, and the less likely anyone will chance money on an unknown wine.

The differences between Alicante, Arribes and La Rioja may have historical and other causes, but their ability to sell their brand and region helps their farmers stay farmers and keeps the land for agricultural, rather than industrial use. Marketing, brand recognition, and economics also play a role in sustainability.

Spain’s most famous dish, the paella, originated in its present day form in the rice fields around the Albufera lagoon, just south of the city of Valencia during the 19th century when Valencia and the rest of Spain closely resembled Arribes today.

The word is derived from “paellera” meaning “pan”, and whatever ingredients farmers had on hand, often just snails and chard, would be fried and then water and rice would be added until the rice had absorbed all the water and flavour. Purists of the paella valenciana insist that it is water that is added, but in Alicante variations exist which use broth and tomato. Instead of snails and chard, today seafood and/or meat, beans and other vegetables are used.

After our neighbour goes hunting, we sometimes get a rabbit as a present that in turn gets passed on to my mother-in-law to be used in a paella; hunting provides food and there are less pests that eat the grapes that gets made into wine in the local cooperative that gets sold that in turn supports the farmers and their families. Paella, too, is part of the sustainable ecosystem in Valencia.

There are many similar dishes based on the same principles but with different ingredients and tastes. There’s arroz al horno (baked rice), arroz a banda which uses fish stock and often served with alioli, arroz negro (black rice) made with cuttlefish or squid, arroces melosos which retain some of their broth, and numerous variations and permutations beside, enabling one restaurant to boast that no two rice dishes they create are ever the same.

Being cooked on an open wood fire makes a world of difference to the paella, too, and around here in the Valencian interior, the smoking embers of twigs from pruned vines impart a flavour of its own.

Traditionally, too, paella has been part of the social fabric, much like a barbeque is in the United States, a family gathering point on Sundays with the paellera in the middle. A family or group of friends will go out to the countryside to make a paella on certain occasions and holidays, often created collectively, and on others, a whole village will participate in its making and consumption during its fiestas, using paelleras a metre or two across.

Although paella has been commercialised and cheapened for tourists and is seen as a national Spanish dish, it is very much something Valencian. Many local tapas bars have transformed into fine restaurants over the last decade or two, including a few Michelin starred ones, made possible by a strong economy based largely on tourism and agriculture.

In contrast to paellas served as fast food for tourists, these quality restaurants have a modern, innovative touch to Valencian rice dishes based on traditional recipes. Whether traditional or innovative, made in fine restaurants or for tourists in coastal tapas bars, it helps support Valencia’s agricultural production. Rice dishes are made with rice from local fields, the fish from local fishermen, and the vegetables from local farmers, sometimes purchased directly from them.

The city of Valencia is surrounded by its “huertas”, large vegetable patches that can run 50, 100 metres or more in length, that provide produce for both local markets and restaurants as well as get sold directly to customers. Without its tourism, its fine restaurants and tapas bars, some that cater to locals in their barrios and villages, others to tourists, much of the huerta would disappear.

The paella forms part of Valencia’s ecosystem, one that may not be as pure and uncontaminated as that of Arribes, but most people do not want to live the way they do there. Sustainability is a nice place to visit, but few really want to live there.

Driving back northwest to Arribes from Valencia, housing developments, Michelin-starred restaurants, and beaches are exchanged for another set of values and another way of doing things. For those who want to raise free-range chickens, grow potatoes and lettuce, perhaps kill a pig and preserve the meat or make wine and cheese, or even work from home via the internet, houses and land can be had cheaply. And for everyone else, there are lessons to be learned that can be applied elsewhere. There may not be paella, but there is something else.