Monday, 30 December 2013

Paella Valenciana (2): Tools, Ingredients and Old Women

A mammoth paella pan for a village feast
(courtesy of David Carr, Valencia)

If you ask me, dear reader, whether it is possible for an ordinary mortal, who is not – so to speak -  ‘to the manner born’, to prepare a Paella Valenciana worthy of the name, then the answer is: Yes, provided that the cook manages to unite certain requisites, tools and ingredients.

These requisites are four in number:

1.     Tools: a Paella Pan, a Paella Burner and a Valencian newspaper;
2.     Special ingredients: ‘Ferradura’ and ‘Garrafón’ beans;
3.     Inspiration: Guidance from On High to combine the exact proportion of rice and water.
4.     Operators: a Valencianische Mama;

We shall address these four items one by one.

1. Tools

A real Paella Pan and a real Paella Burner are almost indispensable for the making of a true Paella Valenciana. This is due to the nature of the dish. At heart, you see, there is only one real secret, and hence only one real challenge, to a successful Paella. This is cooking to perfection a set amount of rice spread thin over a large surface in an inch of boiling water, without the possibility of adding water or removing it, and without ever stirring the rice at all. This is the one skill you must learn to master. All the rest is mere culinary formality which any fool with a spoon can do.

To pull off this quintessential feat the Valencians have developed the special Paella Pan: a large round dish with a 3-inch rim made of light metal which conducts the heat evenly so that all the rice receives exactly the same temperature during exactly the same time, whether that rice is located in the centre, the middle or at the rim.

Furthermore, the Valencians invented the special Paella Burner, which consists of two or three circular tubes, punctured by tiny holes, through which the gas flows evenly, and the heat of each of which tubes can be regulated separately. This here picture explains more than even the lengthiest definition I could formulate:

The Pan is then placed on top of the Burner, the gas on all the tubes is lit, and work can start.

Now, naturally, it is no easy thing to acquire these tools outside of Valencia proper. So us poor cooks who live beyond the borders of that fine province can be forgiven for looking around for alternatives. But before you start fooling around with Camping Gas heaters and Couscous casseroles, please understand what you can and what you cannot possibly use.

The rule is simple: what you cannot do is cook a Paella in a frying pan heated only by one small gas burner in the centre! This is guaranteed to fail, for the rice in centre will overcook, in the middle ring it will be edible, while at the rim it will be as hard as miniature pebbles. Do not do this! If you have no opportunity to produce an even heat during a prolonged period of time under the entire surface of the pan, just abandon your wild ambition, and make yourself boiled rice with fried chicken and rabbit. That is not Paella Valenciana, but it is still enjoyable. And it is a whole lot more enjoyable than a failed Paella Valenciana! Take it from an old man who has eaten them all! (When invited to dinner by fools…)

What you can do, if you have no chance to do better, is using a large normal frying pan on an induction cooktop. Needless to say: this method forbids the cooking of very large Paellas as the pan may not be bigger than the cooking plate. For two or three guests, however, it is an option.

Another, but truly audacious method, is to place your Valencian Paella Pan on the burning cinders of a wood fire. This is a method preferred by many Valencian purists, but shunned by ten times as many expert Paella cooks who are aware of its immanent dangers. A wood fire cannot, after all, be properly controlled or regulated. Often it runs too hot in the beginning, and peters out too soon towards the end, first burning your ingredients, then leaving the rice, once again, as hard as beach sand. I would not recommend this method except to those who have produced at least three dozen utterly delicious Paellas Valencianas throughout their long culinary career!!! And let it be on record that Alfred B. Mittington himself only managed to pull off this trick ONCE!

As for the newspaper in the Valencian language (a form of the Catalan tongue): fortunately in these internet days it has become easier to acquire one of these. You will have to order it several weeks in advance, and – since we will only need one or two sheets to cover our Paella at the end of the process – a single Saturday paper, with its common fold-ins and supplements will probably last you 20 sessions of Paella-making. In the worst cases of emergency, a newspaper in Basque, Gallego or Asturian Bable may also be employed. But don’t come complaining to old Al’ if, by doing so, your Paella comes out stone cold. These are the northern provinces of the Iberian Peninsula, after all, which do not enjoy the lush warm tropical climate of the Garden of Valencia!

2. Ingredients

Nowadays, most ingredients for a Paella Valenciana are easily acquired anywhere on the globe, except, strange to say, for the beans (who’d have thought it?) The classic components (for 4 people) are the following:

400 grams rabbit in small pieces (including the liver, which must be set apart)
400 gram chicken in small pieces
250 grams of Ferradura stringbeans, cut in 5 cm pieces
150 grams of Garrofón white beans
300 grams common rice
½ a cup of olive oil (the normal frying variety, not the ‘extra super virgin’ salad stuff)
½ a spoonful of saffron stigmas
a twig of rosemary
salt to taste

And for the non-purists also:

a beef cube
a glove of garlic
1 ripe tomato or a small jar of tomato paste  
1 spoonful of pimenton dulce, i.e. sweet paprika powder (NOT the spicy stuff)

Ferraduras and Garrofons are special sorts of beans that you’ll be hard put to find anywhere outside of Spain; and even in Spain itself, except Valencia province of course, you will have to look hard to discover a supermarket that has them for sale.

Ferraduras are essentially long, flat, sturdy green string beans, which may, in case of need, be replaced by whatever flat green string bean the area you live in grows and offers. Garrofons, a.k.a. Judias de Lima, are however another story. They are special and essential: a large plump fleshy white bean with a special aromatic taste that blends beautifully and alternates perfectly with rice and fried meat.

It speaks for itself that both beans are best bought fresh. But since Paella Valenciana is already a laborious dish, and fresh Garrafons involve soaking in water and precooking, Alfred B Mittington is of the opinion that it is permissible for the beginning Paella chef to use pre-cooked beans from a glass jar (NEVER from a tin can!), or the deep frozen, pre-mixed packages that the better supermarkets offer. Many fine Paella cooks take this D-tour with dignity, the same way that Rembrandt from time to time used pre-mixed paints…

Some recipes call for an additional ‘150 gr Tabellas’. These are – as far as I have been able to ascertain – normal, straightforward, everyday white beans. By all means do add these if the fancy strikes you, but please note that in my many Valencian days, and my many authentic Valencian Paella’s, I have never encountered a common white bean in the pan. It seems a needless complication to Old Al.

3. Inspiration

As said above: the essential trick you will need to pick up to produce a true Paella Valenciana is to cook the rice without ever upsetting it once you put it in the pan. This means that the heat must be kept absolutely constant, and that – from the very start – the proportion between the amount of rice and the volume of water is perfect.

What then is the perfect proportion between these two?

The truth is that it is impossible to tell scientifically. It depends on too many factors. It depends on the mass of meat and vegetables in the pan. On the average heat below the pan. On the temperature in the air outside! On the air pressure of the surrounding stratosphere! On the quality of your rice! On the hardness of the water… On the… Oh well… On the help of God…!!

However, as a Mittington rule of thumb, which should only be the starting point whence your divinely inspired intuition begins to cruise between the culinary cliffs and rapids, count 1 unit of normal quality rice on 2 ½ units of water. As in cups. Or beakers. Or jars. Or Holy Grails…

4. Die Valencianische Mama

An 18th century wit once quipped that there will never be a shortage of old women. It is obvious that this idiot had never been in need of a Paella Valenciana, or – for that matter – craving for Spanish tapas before the EU induced introduction of VAT killed that particular form of kitchen art in 1986. (It was the underpaid old women who cooked these marvels during 12-hour labour days…)

Perhaps, dear reader, you have heard this story of the Hemingway type Yank who asked a Mexican friend how those delicious Enchiladas were made.
‘Ay, hombre!’ the cordial Mexican fellow exclaimed. ‘Eat Eas Isy…! Berry Isy…! You takuh some flour of ze maiz… You takuh some choppéd meat… You takuh some lettuce… And then you takuh a Mexicanische Mama… You puttet them all together… An’ 15 minute later you gave Enechiladas!!’

Roughly the same trouble, dear reader, stands in the way of ourselves and a Veritable Valencian Paella. To make one ‘como Dios manda’ (As God Ordains, that is to say: the right way) you can barely do without an experienced Valencian mother, way over 45 years of age if-you-please, who knows what she is doing since she has been doing this all her live with love, dedication and the secret family recipe.

But you don’t have one laying around in the cupboard, do you now?

Consequently, you will have to do with the next best thing: Alfred B. Mittington, whose own secret recipe is based on that which he learned after many years of training from his dear old friend, Mama Palmyra Espuig Peris, from the village of Alcasser in Valencia (here seen in her days of glory), a woman with a golden heart, a golden spoon and as much golden jewellery on her person as the Christmas tree of a Columbian drug lord.

Her time-proven way of making a Paella Valenciana we shall tackle in the next post!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Paella Valenciana: What Is It?

Surely, dear reader, in the country or the culture that you come from, there are one or two traditional, artisanal, autochthonous dishes that are so very traditional and artisanal and autochthonous, so dear to you, so surrounded by an aura of pure tribal mystery, yes: so very enigmatic and exclusive to your own kin and kind, that nobody but a lady cook of advanced years, gifted with inborn talents, and in the possession of heirloom, handwritten cookbooks handed down by seven generations of grannies, can possibly be expected to produce them properly.

A REAL hand-made mayonnaise is such a thing in France (see here fora few anecdotes on that matter); plum pudding holds the niche in Britain; boorenkoolstamppot in the Netherlands, and – yes – today’s Paella Valenciana does so on the extreme east coast of Spain…

Paella Valenciana is no light matter, dear reader. It must be understood before one even considers making an attempt to create it. Get this straight. Paella is not a meal. It is not a dish. It cannot even be classed as a victual per se. Paella Valenciana is at heart a social Cult that involves far more that forking carbohydrates into your mouth. For one thing this is because a fork never comes near it. True Paella, you see, finds its roots in the former Moorish culture of Spain; and even though the rather roughshod north-African habit of eating by hand has been abandoned, the Golden Rice must still be partaken collectively, each guest wielding a wooden spoon (preferably) and eating directly out of the Pan.

A well-used pan for a small family 

That Pan, meanwhile, is sacrosanct. It is a special Paella Pan, which is never ever used for any other purpose. (1) There are many sizes of this Pan, and most families own various, a new and bigger Pan being added by way of a common baptismal gift from the parish whenever a new infant increases the size of the family. Thus you will find Pans that feed 4, or 6, or 12 or even immensely huge ones that may accommodate 250 people at a village feast! The only thing you will NEVER find is a Pan for one. Such a thing is anathema, because Paella is simply never eaten alone. The cooking, and eating, of a Paella is a solemn social occasion, celebrated mainly Sunday afternoons when there are eons of time, on which the most beloved of the extended family and friends gather to partake, so to speak, of the culinary Host. Well, his bread and wine of course. Not of the host himself… (2)

A worthy professional with various size pans

Is there such a thing as the Real or True or Ultimate Paella Valenciana? Ah, here we tackle a most delicate question! The answer is that there is no such thing as such. In the splendid, sun-overwhelmed, orange-blossom endowed ‘Garden of Valencia’, there are endless varieties of Paella. Each region, nook and corner has its kind. Every village enjoys its own special variety, and within the village each clan possesses its tricks and its preferences. Families vie for the taste and the reputation that comes with the best made manna; and there are actually festive village competitions in which the Mamas make, outside on the side-walk in front of the door, their secret household recipe and prizes are awarded, which forever after grace the mantelpiece of the family mansions.

However, I can shed some little light into this darkness of diversity, by pointing out that the very best and most classic of the many types, the basic make-up that you cannot get away from, and that you would not want to get away from even if you could (or if they offered you a million dollars) is the simple, straightforward, sheer magical Paella of chicken and rabbit.

What? Only Chicken and Rabbit?? I now hear my haughty globetrotter readers ask indignantly… No beef, lobster, pork, caviar, truffles, Normandy camembert, Weisswurst and stroopwafels that I enjoyed so much in my Paella Cuattro Stazione in the Mayorca Plaza Restaurant last year??

NO! dear reader! No no no no no no no!

Try, in the name of all that is holy in the kitchen, to get this through your head: when we connaisseurs take into our mouths that hallowed name ‘Paella Valenciana’, we are not talking of the sticky, chemo-coloured, overcooked, rice-based goo which you’ll get served on the beaches of the Costa Brava, or in after-hours bistros of the Sierra Nevada ski-range accompanied by Glühwein, or in an ‘authentic’ Andalusian taverna after a pleasant stomach-turning outing to the Seville bullring, and which contains shrimp and goat and mussels and chorizo sausages and chunks of bacaloa. Those are not Paellas! Those are Holidays on Rice. A.k.a. Tourist Junk with a lofty label, for the bliss of folks whom the unscrupulous restaurant owners consider ambulant trash-cans on painful feet.

Another Paella Valenciana COMO DIOS MANDA

Here are two vital things to remember:

1. A true Paella of any kind contains only locally won ingredients, and does not mix any odd dainty from any weirdo place in with the golden rice; and

2. A true Valencian Paella does not mix seafood with meat! Ever!!!

Yes, it is true: there are villages near the coast and in the Albufeiras bayous where the standard Paella is made with fish, gambas and shell fish. But the refined coastal Valencianos would never pollute their golden 1,000-year tradition by tossing in chunks of greasy meat to go with the eel and the hake and the mussels. Only barbarians in Madrid and the tourist resorts ever stoop so low. And only those who have never had a real Paella Valenciana, would ever eat such garbage.

So there. Now that we have established what a Paella Valenciana is and what it is not, we may look into the question of how to make it. In the next entry I will explain about tools and ingredients, which we have to get quite clear before we tackle, in a third issue, the VERY DELICATE affair of actually cooking Mama Palmyra’s Paella Valanciana!

An acceptable fish based Paella

(1) I once witnessed, on a beach near the village of Benifaio, a tour group of drunk German airheads from Dresden using an outsized Paella Pan to fry a heap of eggs in. Within a quarter of an hour, the news spread through the village like fire, the populace gathered on the Plaza de Armas; the priest held a fulminating speech; the broiling column moved to the site of kraut blasphemy; the whole bunch of ruddy sunburned Gerries was run out of the town, pelted with ripe tomatoes, pitch forks and donkey turds, and the fried eggs were tossed unceremoniously into the sea from a nearby rock. The abused Paella Pan was then lovingly buried in a special spot of the church yard. It could never again be used for its true purpose. ‘Great Pan is dead!’ the poor priest lamented at the grave side, with a trembling voice…

(2) Pans for just two people do exist, but are not smiled upon. It rather suggests that a couple is willingly or unwillingly childless, which remains a sensitive issue in Spain. In fact, during carnival, unfaithful men or women are sometimes presented with a miniature Paella-Pan-for-2 by hostile insiders who wish the rest of the world to learn of the illicit liaisons as well… This seems to be an ancient Tartessan tradition, but space forbids me to go into such antiquarian details here.

Friday, 6 December 2013


It is a rare man who makes almost no mistakes in such a very long and turbulent life. 
You were and will remain an example to us all. 
Goodbye, old friend. 
We the human race are orphaned as of today; and the world’s a poorer place now that you’ve gone.