It took me a while to decide on how to present this post about Spain’s most infamous and disputed dish. I thought about going down the history route and how it arrived to become the national dish of Spain for the rest of the world. I considered just discussing what makes a ‘true’ paella and why. But after a year of living in Valencia, I feel what I can best write on is what the Paella is and means to the Valencian themselves. The photos were all taken at an afternoon lunch on a friend’s farm in the heart of Valencia’s most fertile farming land where Paella and an addictive preparation of snails were served.
As a Londoner I have never been able to lay claim to a ‘regional dish’ of my own. In fact the only true London dish I can think of is some East End jellied eels. I am however a fierce defender of English food and believe we have some truly great dishes and a recent resurgence in British cooking has produced some amazing new chefs, restaurants and a realisation that the dishes and produce that we have can actually be wonderful with a bit of time and thought. But despite the resurgence here. there isn’t the same attitude and relationship to regional foods and their history that exist in the likes of Spain, Italy and France; amongst many other countries.
I remember my first flight to Valencia from London and reading an article from the in-flight magazine about the debate between Valencia and Alicante over the origins of the Paella and other rice dishes. I couldn’t believe things were so heated and unresolved after so many years, especially as it is barely a two hour drive between the two.
The first paellas I ate were very average and formed part of lunchtime set menus in restaurants. I kept asking where to go for a good paella and I was often pointed in the direction of Albufera (the National Park and principal rice growing region in Valencia) but the resounding answer was you need to go and eat it in a Valencian home. As cliché as it sounds, it really is true, and most simply because it is a Slow Food. Each paella needs to be done in it’s own pan, from scratch, preferably over wood from the abundance of orange trees and carefully attended to for flame intensity amongst other things – quite infeasible in a restaurant.
The beauty of the Valencian paella, lies not in fancy ingredients but like most truly great dishes, in the little touches and techniques that bring those basic flavours and textures together in perfect harmony. I learnt that the rice is the real star of the show: it holds so much flavour from the other components that their role is reduced to mere sidekicks alongside the perfectly textured and rich grains. It was a peasant food, using the things that were easily available to the inland ‘campesinos’. Water voles have been replaced by rabbits and chicken, snails disappear and reappear through time, but nothing else has changed in the recipe.
Ask a Valencian what their opinion is of chorizo in a Paella, or worse still the combination of chorizo, seafood and anything else that Costa del Sol restaurants throw in and watch as they shudder a little before composing themselves to ridicule what is known as ‘Paella Mixto’. Many just don’t understand why you would add chorizo which overpowers the other flavours of a seafood or Valencian Paella, or why the basic Paellas need changing at all. I guess that’s how the Italians feel about the thousands of abominations of Pizza and Pasta around the world too. And why wouldn’t they be frustrated? The gastronomic representation of their land and history is essentially abused and potentially given a bad name to the rest of the world that consumes it.
A memorable experience of this shared passion for their local food was during Las Fallas festival when I was invited to a sort of Paella ‘cook-off’ in one of Valencia’s tree lined streets. Fire wood, a paella stand and a table were provided and each group of guests supplied their own pan, ingredients and of course alcohol. Much like I imagine the ‘grillman’ culture to be, the men quickly congregated around the paella, each one giving his two cents throughout the fire building and cooking process but never daring to get in the ‘paelleros’ way. By the time the Paella was cooked, the competition had been forgotten for most, but this bringing together of friends over a dish that had always been in their lives left a lasting impression of its ongoing importance in Valencian culture
Returning from Sunday bike rides with my team was made an even more challenging task due to the midday air in the streets of every small town being filled with the aromas of Paella emanating from kitchens and gardens. As each member of the team recounted their personal stories with Paella, debating matters such as varieties of rice and varying flame strength I came to understand that it remains a very macho dish that the man of the house devotes a few hours to every weekend. If not to provide a good family meal, to uphold his reputation as a good ‘paellero’. There is an unmatched pride in producing a Paella which ticks all the boxes and presenting it to friends and family who all come with their own expectations of how it should be. Successful execution of this depends on controlling the numerous small variables throughout cooking.
It is perfecting the combination of developing a rich stock; the absorption by the grains; the speed of evaporation and correct cooking point of the rice – all this is very difficult and makes it the most challenging rice to cook well. This makes me wonder why its fame is so superior to that of the numerous other Valencian rice dishes. Ranging from dry to stock-heavy varieties, baked in the oven or on gas and with ingredients ranging from Cuttlefish ink to Morcilla (black pudding). In my opinion, nothing tops the ‘Meloso’ types of rice. These are cooked with a higher ratio of reduced stock to rice than Paella and therefore leaves a creamy rice almost comparable to a risotto but with flavours left true and not dampened by a parmesan and butter finish.
In writing this post, I came across an interview with a rice grower from Albufera in El País newspaper. Threatened by cheaper Asian imports, the rice growers of Valencia uphold a tradition dating back centuries. The passion with which he speaks about rice is typical of the attitude of many other Valencians:
“Rice has a neutral personality. It doesn’t have a particularly powerful or pleasant flavour, however we have such a varied gastronomic environment for it. There’s no other product with such a vast number of recipes; this is due to the capacity that it has to lose its personality and acquire the tastes of all that you combine with it”.
So, how do you recreate this masterpiece? I would start by visiting www.LaPaella.net which provides insightful information into the history of the dish and the region, tips and tricks (including correct pan size) as well as recipes for this and Seafood Paella.
As I learnt through watching, I will put down below what I took away. But in the words of the ‘paelleros’ that day, it is a dish that takes experience to perfect; so if you follow this recipe or the very similar one from LaPaella.net then you will recognise tweaks and how to improve its elaboration.
La Paella Valenciana:
Ingredients per person
30ml olive oil
1 chicken liver
50g chicken, bones in
50g rabbit, bones in
30g of broad beans
30g of green beans in pod, cut into 2cm chunks
30g butter beans, soaked overnight if they have been dried
40g tomato, grated
⅓ clove garlic, v. finely chopped
¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
pinch of saffron
80g rice (Bomba, Senia or Bahía)
small sprig of rosemary
In the correct sized pan over a medium-high heat, add the livers to the hot oil. Once browned, remove the livers and eat separately/discard, then add the chicken and rabbit. Brown the meat well, good caramelization here is vital to the stock.
Once browned, reduce the flame and add the vegetables. Stirring occasionally, leave them to sauté for a few minutes.
Make a well in the centre of the pan and add the grated tomatoes and the garlic, leaving it to reduce for a few minutes. Then add the paprika, stir and quickly add water so that it doesn’t burn creating a bitter taste. Fill the pan up to near the edge with the water. Add salt to taste, then leave it to reduce for around 35 minutes until the level is halfway up the pan and covering 75% of the ingredients. Taste for the correct level of salt here too, remembering that it will lose some intensity once the rice is added.
Add the rice to the paella in a line from one side to the other through the middle of the pan. This line should be about 5cm wide and come above the stock level 1-2cm. Add the saffron and then stir well to spread the rice evenly around the paella, ensuring no grains are above the stock level. Now leave this for 8 minutes on a high flame. In this stage you achieve the burnt crust on the bottom layer of rice.
Then reduce the flame to minimum and leave for another 6 minutes. Add the rosemary sprigs now too so they can infuse the paella. After these 6 minutes if stock is still visible then leave the paella on a medium flame for a further 4 minutes and if there isn’t any visible stock leave for another 3 minutes on minimum heat.
Remove from the heat and leave to rest for 5 minutes before proudly taking it over to the table.