Alicante: a city with rice at its heart

The historic port city of Alicante is home to one of Spain’s most up-and-coming food scenes. We find out more about its produce, restaurants and all-important arroz dishes.

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Most passengers landing at Alicante airport are making their way to the resort of Benidorm, one of the largest tourist destinations in Spain, but the more savvy passenger takes a twenty minute bus ride and goes to Alicante itself. This port city has Mediterranean beaches (from the Postiguet beach directly across from the main centre, to the much larger destination beach at San Juan) a historic old town with multiple museums and a cathedral, but it is also one of the most exciting up and coming food destinations in Spain.

It was the Moors in the eighth century who first brought rice to these parts, and since then it has become an important component of the regional diet. Alicantinos take their lunchtime rice dishes very seriously and Sunday rice is almost a religious rite for many. Although those of you looking for a paella Valenciana be warned – Alicantinos don’t make them. While many tourist restaurants do offer paella Valenciana, real Alicantinos leave the paella Valenciana to the Valencians further north and instead make a large variety of rice dishes. To a local, paella simply means rice made in a flat paella pan, while arroz caldoso is made in a deeper pot to ensure that some broth remains on serving. In the best restaurant menus in Alicante, for example Pocardy, Darsena or Racó del Pla, rice dishes have a section of their own and can be made with duck and mushrooms, snails and rabbit,  baby cuttlefish and seaweed, and if you are really lucky (and wealthy) red prawns from Denia.

Tuna is another important ingredient in Alicante that has made a big contribution to the culture, and for many centuries was a huge part of the economy. Before Benidorm became one of Europe’s largest holiday resorts, its fishermen were known throughout the Mediterranean as the best tuna fishers in the entire sea. There are various types of tuna fished near Alicante; the small bonito tuna is often dried whole and can still be seen in Alicante’s central market hanging up for sale, while larger tuna species are cut into pieces and salted and dried. Together these types of preserved fish are known as salazones and are an important part of the diet throughout the costal Levant and across the southern Mediterranean coast of Spain. In Alicante they are mostly eaten as a starter with fresh tomato, onion and extra virgin olive oil; indeed for many in the city, a salazón isn’t a salazón without them.

What Alicantinos take for granted is the high quality and variety of their fruit and vegetables. On a walk around the downstairs vegetable section of the central market, you’ll see stall after stall selling a mind-boggling variety of citrus fruits, other fruits, tomatoes of many different sizes and types, as well as seasonal vegetables shown without fuss. It’s a real demonstration of the fact that seasonality is a way of life here rather than a buzzword.

A casual observer of Alicante’s central market, other food shops and well-regarded restaurant menus in the city would notice that while Alicantinos are proud of their own food heritage and traditions, they are also great lovers of the best of the rest of Spain. The Iberico ham and the cheeses of northern and central Spain, among other cheeses, take up space as obviously as the hyper-local produce, including fresh goats' cheese, queso blanquet or San Antonio goats' cheese (made exclusively from the Murciano-Granadino goats' milk) or the queso de servilleta, which can be made from sheep or goat milk. This shows Alicante to be a city focused on living and eating well, both with the best of their own and the best of the rest of Spain.

Where to eat in Alicante:

Baeza y Rufete: Alicante’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Baeza y Rufete is located by a shopping centre on a quiet street in the city. Chef Joaquin Baeza uses single estate extra virgin olive oils, sea water and seaweed in his dishes, which showcase local seasonal produce. Baeza is best known for his ‘black egg’ dish which won him chef of the year in Spain and is a permanent fixture on the menu.

Pocardy: A two-minute walk from Alicante’s famous San Juan beach and part of the family run Hotel Almirante, Pocardy is the place where Alicantinos in the know come for their Sunday rice. As befits the costal location, most of the rice dishes are made with seafood but meat lovers and vegetarians are also catered for.

Templo: Right in the heart of the old town, this temple to the art of aging different breeds and cuts of beef is run by a former garlic exporter, who fell in love with the idea of a dedicated meat restaurant while on a business trip to Montreal. While meat is the star of the show here, the traditional salazones of Alicante are also given a twist with unusual cuts salted then smoked to the general delight of locals.

La Bodega de Meyos: In the San Juan area, De Meyos serves freshly cooked local dishes accompanied by a wine list of over five-hundred wines, from the biggest names in Spain to tiny local wineries. The wines are all available to take away and it’s just €5 corkage to have them in the restaurant. There are also plenty of wines by the glass and you can ask to try something not listed.

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