The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy says that paella is a “plate of dry rice, with meat, fish, shellfish, legumes, etc., characteristic of the Valencian region, in Spain ”, in addition to the“ pan in which the paella is made ”.
This is a fairly faithful definition to the idea of paella in much of Spain and in the world: a yellow rice dish, in which mussels, chicken, peas, prawns and squid are mixed without much sense.
No need to go cut the throat of Jamie Oliver for adding chorizo or peas to the paella, as well as other ingredients that Valencians consider an aberration, since you find them on all the menus of the day in Seville, Madrid or the Basque Country, as well as in the most popular Spanish cookbook in all time: all 1080 cooking recipes from Simone ortega, whose paella also has both ingredients.
It is true that Valencia has never eaten the omnipresent “mixed paella”, but for some time now there has been a gastronomic fundamentalist movement that tries to convince the world that there is only one Valencian paella. And that’s not true either.
Paella is rice in paella
To clarify concepts, we spoke with several Valencian pro people who have a very clear idea of what this dish actually means, that it has more to do with a way of cooking than with a specific recipe.
It was not until 1950 that Valencian paella began to be made as we know it today.
“Paella is a Sunday stew which is done at home, because it takes a long time to do it ”, explains the cook Paco Caballer, author of the best paellas a server has ever tried. “You don’t have the previously made broth like in Alicante rice dishes, fish, you have to fry the meat, vegetables, tomato and let the broth brew for an hour and a half or two. This was done on Sundays and at home, that is why it is so difficult to find a good paella in Valencia in a restaurant, that is why it was a Sunday meeting stew, and that is why men usually did it as well ”.
The recipe for the orthodox Valencian paella, which today is claimed by official bodies – the Generalitat and the Valencia City Council are the main promoters of the International Paella Day, which is celebrated today September 20 – it is actually a very recent invention. It was not until 1950 that Valencian paella as we know it began to be made, and all kinds of ingredients were added to the rice, from sausage to loin, passing through eel or even rat.
As Caballer explains, it is true that in a good part of the province of Valencia –because according to the chef, half of the province is historically and culturally part of Castilla– when people speak of “paella” today, it is understood that it has ten basic ingredientsIn addition to water: rabbit, chicken, green beans, garrofon, garlic, tomato, paprika, saffron, rice and olive oil. But that does not mean that paellas of many other things are not made, and have been made.
“For me, paella is a cauldron in which you can throw a lot of things ”, the cook points out. “In Favara, in Cullera, which is on the Sueca margin, they add pepper to the paella and in the La Xafor region they add pellets, small pork dumplings. And that is Valencia the same ”.
Several recipes, the same ingredients
Guillermo Navarro, founder of Wikipaella, agrees with Caballer in pointing out that paella is any rice that is made in paella, but when talking about “Valencian paella” things change.
There are ingredients that are replicated everywhere and others that change depending on the area of the community
“Valencian paella is a recipe attached to a territory which is the Valencian Community, with certain ingredients, which are marked by the territory and the area in which it is made ”, explains Navarro. “We did an almost ethnographic work on how rice is made in the Valencian Community and there are ingredients that are replicated everywhere and others that change according to the area of the community. There is not so much a unique recipe, but unique ingredients ”.
As Navarro points out, there are ten ingredients that appear in all recipes, the ones we listed above, and eight that go in or out. “If we are in Castellón there are artichokes and snow peas or if we are in the south of the province of Valencia or the north of Alicante there is red pepper ”, explains the expert.
It should be noted, however, that paella as we know it today is not the only typical rice stew in Valencia, it is only the one that has had the most success. “The recipe for paella has been changing, it was a pot in which people put what was out there,” says Caballer. “There is a stew in paella called spread which is like a sea and a mountain that carries eel, duck, chicken and rabbit, potatoes and egg. Crazy”. They say that the dish arose from a confusion in a meeting of friends, because one of the cooks thought he was going to do there i pebre (a traditional Valencian potato and eel stew) and another paella. In the end they got it all. “It is super typical of Albufera, but few people know it,” explains Caballer.
In fact, each region of the Levant has its own specific recipe book, with more or less similar rice dishes.
In Alicante there are practically the same dishes than the Valencian paella, only that there it is called “rice”. It is famous that is served, for example, in Elias House –In the Alicante town of Xinorlet– which contains seven of the ten iconic ingredients (the garrofón, chicken and green beans are dispensed with and cloves are added). But it is not sold as “paella”, but as “rabbit rice and snails”.
Authentic elements of Paellista folklore
Regardless of the dish itself, the paella is surrounded by a gastronomic ritual that Valencians do consider decisive.
Valencians never ever eat paella for dinner
For Caballer the ceremony is much more important than rice: “It means getting together and spending a lot of time around the fire, and putting the paella in the center makes the ceremony much more meaningful. When shared in the same cauldron, it is a dish that everyone eats. Now, you can make a paella for 20 and then it doesn’t make sense for everyone to eat from the same container ”.
Traditionally, while the paella is cooking a bottle of beer or tinto de verano is shared, which is accompanied by pickled chives and salted peppers (some typical peppers in brine from the area). And, under no circumstances, paella is made for dinner.
“Eat the paella in the center it is part of the ritual ”, agrees Navarro. “In the heart and head of Valencians you have to eat it in the center, it is democratic, you eat from the same plate. It has a romantic, nostalgic aspect, as our elders did ”.
But, in the opinion of the founder of Wikipaella, that the preparation of the dish is “a playful and festive act”, does not mean that you can find good options in restaurants: “The difficult thing is to find good restaurants, but there are very good restaurants where you can eat Valencian paella. What happens is that since many people cook Valencian paella at home, it is difficult for a Valencian to go out to eat a paella and not compare it with their own. At Wikipaella what we have done is to break that myth that there are no restaurants where you can eat good paellas because beyond the one you have been able to eat every weekend of your life at home, the best paellas can be found in restaurants ”.
Wood is what differentiates a good paella from an extraordinary one
The paellas of note, in addition, they are cooked on firewood. “If you can’t make it outside, you do it with gas, but the taste has nothing to do with it,” explains Caballer. And, as Navarro points out, “wood is what differentiates a good paella from an extraordinary one”.
Traditionally, the Valencian paella it is cooked with orange wood, simply because it was the fuel you had on hand, the same reason why you put rabbit and chicken, since they were the animals that were raised in all the houses in the area – where pigs, for example, were not so common -. Furthermore, orange wood is consumed very slowly and less firewood is needed, although in Navarro’s opinion, nothing prevents making a good paella with other woods.
Also it is important not to stir the rice, something that all Valencians seem excessively obsessed with, but that has its reason for being.
“The senia rice, which is native to Valencia, absorbs the flavor of the broth very well and is very delicate ”, explains Caballer. “If at any given moment you see that you have a lot in one part, because it has been distributed badly, you can hit it with a wiggle, but what you can’t is make the rice dizzy because it breaks and a filling comes out ”.
“The rice cannot be cakedIt has to be loose, whole and tasty ”, agrees Navarro. “You have to take the rice with a spoon and let it fall, if it does not lack starch and it becomes Risotto. It is not stirred because then the starch is released and it cakes. Once the rice is added, it is not touched ”.
Unfounded legends around paella
That crafting paella is a social act, which ends with a rice as God intended in the center of the table, is a first year paellista, but there are other parts of the folklore that are not so widespread.
Bringing Valencia water to cook outside is to give a movie to the matter
“I have not eaten a paella with wooden spoon in my life, things as they are ”, explains Caballer. “I suppose it would be done in the old days because it was cheaper, but there are wooden spoons that are very porous and it gives me teeth.” Navarro, although he admits that not everyone does it, he is a defender of eating with a wooden spoon, because “wood is more neutral with the flavor of rice.”
What they both agree on is pointing out that water is hardly important. “I have made a paella in Cuenca and they have come out better …