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Down on the Delta

Poble NouOne thing I can tell you about Tortosa, the capital of the Delta del Ebro, is that it’s almost impossible to get a cup of coffee there on a Sunday morning. We prowled the old quarter for an hour, shuddered beneath the austere and rather sinister feeling walls of the cathedral, absorbed the great hulking monument of an eagle about to take flight that Franco had erected in the middle of the river when he wasn’t busy shooting his detractors, and finally ended up at Café Viena in front of a fine looking market that was, of course, shut. Sunday’s in Spain are really about lunch.

Suffice to say that Tortosa’s finest assets are arguably its parador – a government run hotel of the old guard that in this case is perched majestically on the cliffs above the river. The views are sensational, but the five forms to fill in on arrival and a questionnaire on departure were a bit much. We declined the questionnaire.

I feel slightly disloyal for saying this, but I honestly can’t think of a good reason to go to Tortosa. You’re so much better off inland or on the delta proper, which was where we headed for an early lunch in the little settlement of Poble Nou, floating like an island amidst the paddy fields. There’s been a village of sorts here since the seventeenth century, but unless you were a rice farmer or fisherman you wouldn’t have been able to get to it until the early 1950s when the roads were put in. It still has an old world feel about it, like it’s been cut off from the rest of Spain – a dolls-house sized place of white-washed cottages arranged on a grid around the church. Those that have been spruced up of late now have doorways and windows painted cornflower blue or duck egg green. The patios that you can just glimpse as you amble past are spilling over with ferns and flowers and the songbirds are almost deafening in the silence. If it wasn’t so lovely you’d think it was Stepford, well that and the strong smelling fertilizer plant or fish farm that you have to drive past to get into town. Fortunately, you can’t smell the plant once you’re in town.

These days Poble Nou has a handful of basic places to stay, and plenty of places to rent bikes from. Exploring the village would take you about 10 minutes if you really took your time, though if you go for the bike option you could cruise around the paddies admiring huge flocks of pink flamingos en route to a long, wide beach popular with kite surfers. Or you can simply come here to eat, which is what my friend Richard and I did.

Baby navajasCal Faiges (calfaiges.cat) is deadly serious about Delta cooking and I am a sucker for anywhere that takes its food deadly seriously: rice from the paddies, obviously, but also eels and frogs from its waterways, and fish and seafood from the bay of San Carles de la Ràpita. We have tiny navajas (baby razor clams) the size of my pinky finger and sweet as sugarcane, crisp fried chipirones (baby squid) and bunyols de bacalao (salt cod fritters) followed by a pan of plump, tender black rice with a deeply ozoney edge. It was very salty, which is how they like it here I learned, and while by choice I’d have eased up on the salt a little, I did find it helped that extra glass of fresh, vibrant white wine from the Terra Alta slip down a treat. Here’s my version of it.

 Very negre, arroz negre (serves 6)Arroz Negre

2 onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
3 large tomatoes, diced
1 large cuttlefish, cleaned but with ink sac (separate ink sac, dice cuttlefish)
4 artichoke hearts, sliced (and rubbed with lemon to stop discolouring)
500 g clams, well washed
600 g bomba rice
1.5 litres fish stock, heated and kept warm
Olive oil

  • You’ll need a large, flat pan for this. If you don’t have a paella, I find a large frying pan works just as well. It should be 15-17 inches across.
  • Saute the onions and garlic in plenty of oil until very soft, add the tomatoes and continue cooking until the vegetables have melted into each other.
  • Add the cuttlefish and cook until opaque, then add the artichoke quarters.
  • Place the ink sac in a sieve over the pan and crush with the back of a wooden spoon to extract the ink, thinning with a little water now and then to help ease it through. It will be extremely black – this is good.
  • Add the rice and stir so that it’s well coated with the inky ingredients, then cover with the stock and cook on a low heat uncovered for around 15-20 minutes or until the water is mostly absorbed (this timing and quantity will depend a bit on the water, your stove etc, and you may find you may need a little less or a little more stock depending on this).
  • Do NOT stir the rice. It should be al dente (it will finish cooking when you leave to rest at the end), but you do not want it to become a rissotto.
  • Add the clams 5 minutes before the end of cooking and press them into the top of the rice so that they are popped open by the time the rice is done.
  • Cover with foil for leave to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.
  • You can sprinkle with parsley if you want (I prefer it without), but it is essential to serve it with lots and lots of aioli (garlic mayonnaise).
  • Place the pan in the middle of the table, hand everyone a spoon and dig in.