La Cocina Espanol: A Brief History of Paella

My favorite line in Penelope Casa's The Food and Wines of Spain (aka my and Dave's foodie bible while traveling) is a quote from a Spanish food critic in response to canned paella:

"Canned paella?! How can you can paella? It's like trying to can the sun...or poetry!"

Spaniards take their paella seriously, and reading Casa's book, I learned to take it seriously, too. The paella rules? ONLY to be eaten where you can see the ocean, ONLY in Valencia--Spanish rice country, and ONLY with fish and seafood that was swimming about 30 seconds prior to dropping in the pan. She also strongly encouraged readers to seek out paella made directly on the fishing boats where the fish are caught, a process that places so much emphasis on freshness that even sitting in a restaurant is too far away and paella purists must instead gather on the beach like waiting seagulls. However even she contended that this was maybe going a little too far.

Paella was born in Valencia, where the ubiquitous rice paddies dot an otherwise arid region. Named for the Catalan word for pan, paella is seasoned with saffron, a spice found in many Spanish dishes due to the Moorish influence in the country. Although I was most anxious to try seafood paella, the dish's popularity throughout Spain means there are myriad varieties, from Valenican paella, which is made with rice, beans, green vegetables, and meat, to paella flavored with chicken or lobster. A sign of a good paella is that it's served directly in the pan in which it was cooked, rather than scooped up from a communal pot. The paella should be crispy on the bottom, and warm throughout, cooked together with the rice and meat or seafood to allow the flavors to properly mix.

The first time I went to Spain, when I was 16 (I think? oh memory), my family and I ate paella at an outdoor restaurant in Madrid. It was not pleasant. Although you can smoke pretty much anywhere anytime in Europe, outdoor eating tends to attract the greatest plumes of smoke, and I was unfortunately sitting behind a woman who courteously blew her smoke away from her tablemates and onto my face. After I convulsively hacked away, she eventually realized what was happening, apologized, and stopped, but my first memories of paella are mostly clouded (heh) by that unfortunate experience. Later, I would learn that in breaking all the paella rules, the giant pan my family dug into with gusto was, in all likelihood, subpar. I think I probably ordered chicken anyway.

So when Dave and I arrived in Spain, I vowed to make amends and give paella another try. Valencia was on our list of places to visit, but at the last minute we decided to veer off for a day trip to France (we ended up driving for many, many hours, seeing a castle, and spending a night in a very hot and very cheap hotel). Although I was disappointed I couldn't sample (and steal) some of the long-grained Spanish rice Casa rhapsodized in her book, my dreams of eating paella cerca del mar were revived our last few nights in Spain, when we visited the city of Tarragona.

Tarragona, a Catalan city built by the Romans, sits on the Mediterranean a few hours north of Valencia. Although it lacks Valencia's famous rice paddies, it's full of wonderful seafood places, which means paella is almost a requisite for most restaurants. We visited one our first night there, where Dave finally got his pulpo (octopus. I know.) and I dug into a plateful of paella. My first impressions were not so great. It tasted mushier than I'd thought it would, with the rice thicker and more like risotto. The restaurant also skimped on the seafood, decorating the dish with lovely--and empty--cockle shells. I took that to mean I could do better, and so I don't hold the world of paella responsible for my two less than pleasant meals.

Still, even through the paltry seafood and the sticky rice, I could taste faint glimmers of loveliness. The rice, flavored with saffron, had brief moments where it was comfortingly warm and fragrant, filling without being weighty. Paired with fresh, fresh seafood--rich, sweet, faintly alive seafood--I saw how the dish could really taste. If anything, my disappointing meal has left me even hungrier for real paella, a shame since Casa is unsurprisingly disdainful of American mock-ups. Such is the price of perfection!

1 comment:

  1. Next time you and Dave make it to Spain I'll have to put you in touch with my Spanish Madre, who not only will make sure you do not skip out on lovely Valencia a third time, but more importantly will make you a paella so divine it will make your head spin.
    That said, I think I still have her amazing recipe on my old computer if you want to give it a try yourself in the meantime :)