Ask anyone who is passionate about local cooking in Valencia where to find the ‘best’ paella and the answer will more likely be “not in a restaurant”. Slightly cruel and cutting, but like all home truths the answer has legs too.
The paella is an institution. It owes everything to the Moors who planted rice to the north and south of El Cid’s beautiful city, Valencia. It is entirely classless - enjoyed in equal measure by high born and peasants on a Sunday as a family. Cooked traditionally, the paella has to be made outdoors over a wood fire. It is always made by the men and there are rules which become hotly debated family to family, quartier to quartier. Meat and fish never, ever go together – there are farmer’s paella’s and fishermen’s paella’s, posh paella’s and peasant paella’s - simple really. With a good broth for the rice and plenty love, the dish takes on its own form.
Take any aspect – for example, the cooking over a wood fire – the question becomes, what variety of wood. My late brother-in-law was adamant it should be orange wood, taken from the prunings in the extensive orange groves that typify Valencia and the Levante. Another I know swears it has to be vine – the better wines of Valencia are becoming better known, from the sweet Moscatel to the heavier reds of Priorat and around.
Essential discussions like these can make the cooking of the paella more corrida than cocina. Another is that all the ingredients should be broken by hand and never cut with a knife. Once the paella is set it should not be touched – that is unless the cook decides to stroke the surface with a rosemary branch. Fine paella is judged by placing a spirit level on top.
Traditionally the paella is eaten from the pan with every diner taking only from their slice – to reach across and fork a fine morsel is bad form but frequently done. It’s also only eaten when it’s cooled and the flavours have fully melded – often the salad is placed on an upturned plate in the centre of the paella so diners can refresh before they tackle the final portion.
One quick tale before I get to the point of this post – the abandoned rice.
My late brother-in-law, Agustin Casanova, once took me to a tiny pueblo somewhere around Albufera – the big rice growing area to the south of Valencia where they also grow the best vegetables for the city. Hundreds of hectares of this precious coastal strips were lost when the Spanish government made compulsory purchase orders on behalf of its new friend, Ford of America, for their Fiesta factory which has dominated the skyline now for 20 years or more.
Simple Salad to Start
The two of us ate that evening in what’s best described as a peasant farmer’s house – much like the adobe houses in Mexico and parts of Arizona I have visited. I don’t recall money changing hands nor a sign over the door. Noisy TV blaring out from the corner, unflattering fluorescent strip above the oil cloth covered table – a bottle of unmarked icy rosado and two beakers set before us on the table. The simple Valenciana salad of lettuce, tomato, onion, green olives, hard boiled egg and canned tuna to pick at as we waited for the rice – dressed with salt, olive oil and wine vinegar and nothing else.
In it came. The Paella alla Ratta. This typified life in the hand-to-mouth farmsteads. Their meat was what they could hunt, trap or gather – it could have been rabbit, pigeons, wild ducks or eels, but that evening it was Ratty – the clean living, vegetarian water rats that live in the rice paddies, not the gangster rats who live downtown.
I wasn’t told the whole story until we’d eaten all before us – sharing the precious ‘zucchero‘, the caramelised rice on the base of the pan which you scrape away even though you are fed to bursting. Children will fight for their share of zucchero – much like the base of the Persian chello – and probably with a similar Arab origin, like most of the best of Spanish cooking.
Arroz a Banda
Now to the king of the Valenciana Arroces – rarely do people there talk of paella, more likely you are invited to eat an ’arroz’ (arroces being the plural for there are countless variants, from black rice with squid ink, green rice with new season vegetables, marinara with seafood, classic Valenciana with rabbit, snails and white beans and so on).
Arroz a Banda is the one to seek out – literally the ‘abandoned rice’. Although it has humble origins with the fishermen making a broth of the rock fish catches they couldn’t sell at market, today it’s shifted up the excellence ladder and sits proudly on the top. Agustin loved the English word ‘gravy’ – he’d talk of making a rich and sticky ‘gravy’ (ie stock) from the best seafood and rock fish he could afford. Other times we’d eat Arroz a Banda at the long since gone Bahia restaurant in old Altea – they were masters of the craft and their version was so rich it made your head spin.
I told my new friend-in-food Tilly about Arroz a Banda last Friday, explaining it was almost impossible to make in England as the stock ingredients are too costly and their range unavailable. To think that real paella or any true Valenciana rice doesn’t even exists in London is another point of debate – so much for it’s claim to be restaurant capital of the world.
The Arroz a Banda is made identically to any paella – the difference is that the flavour comes from the amazing stock – and so it is ‘abandoned’ by its fish and seafood. Sometimes the latter is served, together with whole potatoes cooked in the stock, with a rich, palate searing ali’oli (alioli) - a sauce of nothing more than pounded garlic, salt and olive oil, made into a mayonnaise without the egg. Personally I pass this plate by as its surrendered up all to the ‘gravy’, but any restaurant that serves is showing its regard for authenticity – the only debate is whether its is served before or after the rice.
If you do attempt an Arroz a Banda, use as much shell fish as you can afford – then seafish like gurnard, bream, sole, mullet, etc. Become chums with the fishmonger and ask for ‘frames’ – the head to tail skeletons after filleting.
Pimenton and Saffron
For all paella’s you start with a ‘sofrito’ - made by frying off onion, garlic and tomato, then adding pimenton - smoked pepper akin to paprika, but made from the Spanish ‘Nora’ pimento. Pimenton defines much of Spanish flavour – it comes as dulce (sweet and mild) or piccante (hot) – offers up the orange red colour of chorizo, sobrasada, tapas and so much else in cooking across all Spain. A little goes a long way. There are seven grades – the best being only the flesh scraped from the skin; the lowest being the ground up bitter skins. Saffron is also essential – again, there are the wraps of paella colouring sold as ‘azafran’ and then there is the dried blue crocus stigmas which cost more than 22 carat gold ounce for ounce. Use the best you can afford – take care not to be sold ersatz saffron made from the likes of marigold and often dyed.
Warm the saffron over a hot pan – then infuse it in a little warm water. Only then add it this dish, or any other where you have the priviledge of using it. This way you extract the maximum flavour from your valuable ingredient.
A tip – as you’re more likely to cook this indoors, try baking the rice in a cazuela in the oven. I’d been challenged for that in Valencia, but it does work and I’d bet some will do just that as the cazuela rules in coalition with the steel paella in the Levantine kitchen. A generous strip of rice across the middle of pan makes measurement easier – just top up with stock, stir once to distribute the grains and don’t touch again until the dish is ready to eat. Very Spanish.
Gracias the now departed Agustin Casanova, a gastronomic traveller if ever there was. We sought out, cooked and ate well together for more than two decades.