#SpanishFoodieMonth: In Search of the Perfect Paella
Before me is a broad, flat pan filled with rice the color of autumn sunshine, and rising up from it in irresistibly aromatic bursts, is the scent of pan-fried chicken and rabbit mixed in with something nuttier, a whiff of mountain herbs, and the faint, but unmistakable perfume of saffron. I close my eyes, inhale deeply and dig in. The flavour is deeply layered, the meat tender and juicy, the beans plump, the rice pure and bright, just a tiny bit chewy and richly infused with the ancient, honest flavours of its ingredients. As I chew the bright lights and honey coloured wood panelling of the dining room disappear, and I’m transported to the shade of an orange tree deep in the Valencian countryside when suddenly, my sweet reverie is broken.
“There is only one paella Valenciano,” declares Roberto Aparicio Pastor indignantly gesturing wildly at the pan in front of me. “Anything else is an imposter. It’s an arroz!” We’re sitting at his rice restaurant, Casa Roberto, in the heart of the city of Valencia, where I have come in search of the best paella on earth, and he should know. He’s been cooking perfect pans of the local rice for the past 50 years. Shaking his head crossly, he sighs: “It’s the most abused dish in the world.”
For years, any rice dish, anywhere in Spain has been touted as ‘paella’, but this is not quite the truth. Paella is a dry dish, where as wetter or soupier rice dishes are known as arroces, and paella Valenciano contains very specific ingredients, certainly not the red peppers, peas or chorizo sausage that crops up in its various versions. Neither does it contain seafood – that would be a ‘paella de marisco’ – so people here get understandably het up about it. After all, this is the region where paella was born.
Located in the smart, leafy Ensanche neighbourhood of stately 19th century townhouses fringed by trees dripping with purple blossom, Casa Roberto is one of those reassuringly old school Spanish places where you’re in no doubt that what you are about to eat is the real deal. Lined up in the kitchen along a bank of paelleros – the concentric gas rings that paellas of different sizes are cooked on – pans rest, already filled with the base ingredients of paella Valenciano: golden joints of rabbit and chicken, green beans, artichokes and the all important garrofón, a type of butter bean whose authenticity is proved by the pinky-nail sized strip of black at the top. “If it doesn’t have that,” Roberto warned, “It is not a garrofón from Valencia, it’s an impersonator from Alicante or Murcia.”
Chalky water from Valencia makes the best stock, he continues, and if you fill it up to the two rivets that attach the paella handles to the pan, you will have exactly the right amount for perfect paella. To this you add the other ingredients and simmer for 20 minutes, adding a handful of snails plucked from local vineyards halfway through, and finally the rice, 100g per person, and ideally three to six months old (any less and it’s too wet and goes soggy, any more and it’s too hard to properly absorb the flavours of the rest of the ingredients). Thereafter you must not touch the rice at all because the goal is tender, plump, separate grains – stirring will only get you something like risotto – and ideally you want a socarrat, that wondrous layer of crunchy, caramelised rice that forms in sticky clusters on the bottom. Do this by applying some serious heat at the end of cooking, ideally over burning vines or orange wood.
For Roberto, the ritual of paella Valenciano is just as important. You should only eat it at lunchtime (Valencianos say it is impossible to digest at night, and while his restaurant is open at night to cater for tourists, you won’t find any locals among them), you should always share it from one pan and eat it from a wooden spoon, and in the old days it would have been cooked outside and eaten outside in a gentle breeze that locals nicknamed El Paellero. By the time we have finished the pan I feel a small addiction developing, so the next morning we head out to the paddy fields of the Albufera.
Barely 15 minutes from the city centre the landscape changes dramatically into narrow, country lanes fringed by bull rushes and elephant grasses in the middle of which is the sleepy little village of El Palmar, the ‘capital’. Rice was first planted here by the Moors in the 8th century although its commercialisation is much more recent, dating back to the 1800s, and the first paellas didn’t appear until around the mid 19th century among peasants and fishermen who would stop work in the middle of the day and cook up a dish in a broad flat pan (also called a paella), filling it with whatever they had to hand.
Today the region grows three different types of rice: Bomba, Senia and Bahía, each with their own qualities, though Bomba is generally agreed to be the best for paella because it absorbs flavours well and doesn’t go mushy. The fields are prepared and fertilised in February (when they look bare and muddy), flooded in April, grown green and strong through the summer and finally harvested in September and the crop now accounts for around 15% of the total rice production in Spain. Highly prized by the best restaurants and gourmet stores worldwide, times are changing and cheaper rice grown elsewhere is having an impact. Ernesto is a rice farmer cum fisherman, turned boatman who now offers tourists trips around the lagoon to make ends meet. He’s easily spotted by his mascot – a life-size Buddha that looks like just like himself, dipped in gold. “The Albufera has shrunk to just over 3,000 hectares over the centuries, but it still produces 100 thousand kilos of rice a year,” he says expansively as we push off on his long wooden boat, “For us, rice is everything – it’s our daily bread, and how we make a living – but the crisis has been cruel and so now I’m also doing tourist things, like taking you out on my boat.”
For me, it’s an idyllic and slightly surreal way to spend a morning: there on the horizon you can easily make out Valencia’s skyline yet here you are in a scene straight out off the travel channel featuring Asia. Herons line up like soldiers standing to attention along the canal banks, mother ducks and their ducklings glide by, and eel catchers tip their straw hats when we pass. But picturesque as it is, the clock is ticking towards lunch, and it’s time to head back to Valencia.
If Roberto’s rice is the most traditional, Quique Dacosta’s – one of Spain’s hottest culinary stars – is the most innovative. He penned the definitive ‘Arroces Contemporáneos’ (Contemporary Rices) back in 2005, and in so doing radically changed the face of rice cookery. His restaurant, Quique Dacosta in Dénia, currently ranks at number 41 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and he agreed to meet us for lunch at his bistro Mercatbar. With its sleek, striped interior and sensual photographs, the restaurant is currently the hottest spot in town for casual dining. It is buzzing with local hipsters slurping oysters and tucking into his more modern take on the regional dish with a focus on the grain: arroz Sénia Mediterranean (dry) flavoured with impeccably fresh fish and scented with saffron is light and tender, hearty arroz Bahía caldoso (soupy) brimming with baby octopus and meatballs is succulent and creamy, and arroz Bomba meloso (wet) with confit of chicken and garrafón is plump and chewy.
Hailed as an innovator, Dacosta cuts a fine figure in a navy blazer, a thick mop of dark hair hanging seductively over black-framed glasses. We drink champagne – lots of it, because as he says, it is the obvious partner to a ‘buen arroz’ – and discuss the rice wars between Valencia and Alicante.
“Paella was always made at home,” he tells me, “but when Alicante started to get touristy in the 1960s it became ‘professionalised’. That is, they started serving it in restaurants. In Alicante they started off with a base of oil, garlic, tomato, pimentón and cuttlefish and added the rice before the stock. Imagine? It’s a silly detail, but one that drove people crazy and so began this battle about what is paella and what is arroz.”
That evening he sends us off to another of his restaurants in the Ciutat Vella, El Poblet, which showcases the best and most innovative of the dishes as the mother ship. Run by two young protégées, Germán Carrizo and Carito Lourenço, we have ‘chips marinos’ – rice that’s been puffed and flavoured into starfish, seaweed, sea urchins and shrimp pancakes. Rice blanketed in cod skin jelly that looks like an oyster, but scooping spoonfuls from bottom to top, it changes flavour from smoky through to an explosion of citrus; pigeon rice scattered with foraged herbs, shaved hazelnuts, almond crumbs, beetroot foam and shoots, and ‘Arroz Cenizas 2008’ (ashen rice) of truffle infused puffed rice on a bed of black mushrooms, fresh rice grains and powdered prawns.
“I’m all about reflecting on these traditional dishes and figuring out ways to take them forwards,” he tells me later. “This business about a paella having to contain certain ingredients, well that doesn’t really hold up. In the old days in the Albufera, people added river rat and insects, whatever they had. The truth is it was a dish about survival, and from Barcelona to Alicante anything that was made in a paella pan with a rice base was a true paella. The rules and recipes came afterwards.”
Our plan had been to finish off the trip by joining Valencianos on their weekend rice ritual in Valencia’s old fisherman’s quarter, El Cabanyal. Wedged between Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic City of Arts and Sciences and the beach, it was once a fairly run-down part of town, but when the first America’s Cup was held here in 2007 it went through a dramatic transformation. Boutique hotels sprouted along the seafront, fashionable tapas bars opened on the narrow streets and the ramshackle chiringuitos that once dominated the Avenida Neptuno – aka the paella mile – were spruced up as stylish rice restaurants with terraces onto the sand. Places like the legendary La Pepica, a favourite of Ernest Hemmingway and his bullfighting buddies, and L’Estimat, beloved by huge, extended Spanish families, have been around forever, but ask any serious aficionado where they’ll eat their Sunday paella, and they’ll send you straight out of town to Casa Salvador.
It takes a little effort to get to – the train from Valencia city centre to Cullera takes about 30 minutes, followed by a 10 minute cab ride – but takes you through splendid countryside where low sierra rise up out of the watery plains and the sweet waters of the Albufera meet the sea. Casa Salvador occupies a large old barraca – the steep, pitched-roofed houses of the region – with a large, elegantly set terrace shaded by vines on the banks of the river. Family run for the past 65 years, it’s at its busiest and most atmospheric on Sundays when up to 700 impassioned Valencianos show up for lunch.
Salvador Gascón is all about paella for the people and has dedicated his life to researching the seemingly infinite number of rice recipes specific to Valencia, saying that although there is ‘only one true paella Valenciano’, there are plenty of other perfectly acceptable paellas to be had. “Rices are like cars and women,” he tells me cheekily through his handlebar moustache. “They are all different. I have 70 to 80 different kinds on my menu, and I can tell you that there are 98 dishes specific to the Valencia region alone. I myself have been doing a paella with duck, wild garlic and leeks for at least five years.”
It’s difficult to argue with a man who counts Spain’s top chefs like Juan Mari Arzak, Quique Dacosta and Ferran Adrià among his regulars, but what he is strict on is that nothing should be pre-prepared. About an hour before service, two monstrously sized kitchens burst into life – one for dry rices (secos) and paellas, and the other for wet (meloso) and soupy (caldoso) rices. Pans are stacked head-high and they work at a furious pace to the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ played loud. “Ferran says I’m mad,” he roars with laughter before racing us to a table at the river’s edge and placing a plate of tiny, purple octopus in front of us along with a dish of ‘all i pebre’ (the celebrated eel and pepper stew of the Albufera). “Just little snacks,” he says, before the main event – an arroz meloso with monkfish, langoustines and mushrooms. It’s deeply savoury, unctuous in the mouth, and captures the taste of land and sea in one perfect pot.
On the drive home I do a mental count. I’ve eaten ten rice dishes in three days, each with its own unique character and flavour, yet I’ve barely scratched the surface. Rice is playful, intriguing, brilliant stuff, but it takes a very special talent to do it well. I realise that here in this city of fanatical gourmands, every paella has its place, just so long as it’s perfect.
Ayre Hotel Astoria Palace
This modern hotel is brilliantly located in the heart of the old city, and has an excellent wine and tapas bar to boot.
Plaza de Rodrigo Botet 5
+34 963 981 000
Arguably the most traditional of the rice restaurants in the city, Roberto’s delightful staff take a rare pride in serving paellas of the utmost authenticity.
C/ Mastro Gozalbo 19
+34 963 951 361
A fabulous location and a sprawling terrace make this one of the best places in the land for dining al fresco. 70+ rice dishes range from modern and healthy to old-school rib-stickers.
L’Estany de Cullera
+34 961 720 136
Modern, playful and romantic, come here to sample highlights from Quique Dacosta’s flagship restaurant in Dénia and see the future of rice. The €42 tasting menu is great value.
C/Correos 8 1º
+34 961 111 106
Run by Quique’s brother Alex, this trendy bistro puts rice in a contemporary context with an emphasis on light, clean dishes like Mediterranean rice with fish and saffron.
C/Joaquín Costa 27
+34 963 748 558