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!


  1. In the absence of the pukka paella burner, I would like to propose the use of the Weber charcoal BBQ as a suitable heat source. . By spreading the charcoal (once lit) evenly over the grate, combustion rates can be controlled by the bottom air vents. The paella pan that I possess fits beautifully within the bowl of the Weber, resting on the edge of said bowl, once I have removed the cooking grill.

    However, my youngest son & I have a project to cast a 1500 mm diameter, circular, decorative concrete, garden table, which will have a centre hole that will take a Jingisukan Pan & its charcoal fired heat source. Will also take the paella pan.

    Self service cooking without losing your portion.



  2. Hokkaido cuisine.

  3. For a moment there, I was going to say that we don't get Ferradura or Garrofón on this side of the world and then I saw the photos and changed my mind. We call them Green (String) Beans and Broad Beans :)
    I like the names Ferradura and Garrofón more though... sounds more eloquent - like you're eating something decadent and exquisite as opposed to just legumes.