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.


  1. I once tried one of these faux paella's with seafood in and it was an abomination. So it comes as a great relief to know that, in no way, can it be referred to as authentic - rather much like those dishes you call "Holidays on Rice" haha!
    And it seems as though Senor Paella really knows what he's doing.

    1. Dear Ms A.

      Abomination is indeed the correct word. The goo in question ought to be prohibited by law… But where IS the European Union when you need them?

      Yours, ABM

  2. It is always with interest that I read your reflections on that most interesting of all human studies; the knowledge of oneself! Your preference for the later spelling "connaisseurs" is wonderfully instructive, in that the meaning of "to be acquainted with" or "to have knowledge of" is not so easily deduced from the Middle French "connoistre".

    Sadly, "fie!" is an ejaculation, an exclamation uttered by Mater Familias vying for the honour of wining the Paella Valanciana competition.




  3. Dear Mr P:

    Once again you caught an old man in a dumb mistake! I corrected Fie to Vie. However, I fail to see your objection to the word Connaisseur(s). It is French. So I put it in Italics. Is it wrong, you think, to do it this way?

    Yours, gratefully, Alfred B.

  4. What the hell does 'autochthonous' mean? Is it English?? I can't be bothered to look it up but refuse to read further until you define it. And then I will check it vi a seance with Sam Johnson tonite.

    1. In your case it means 'Somebody who whistles in his car'. Go ahead and don't read something which might help you to learn to cook, you Liverputian fool!

      Al M.

  5. Sire,

    You are correct to use French spelling, because the English form, "connoisseur " derives from the Middle-French "connoistre", thence changed after 1835 to "connaître", hence "connaisseur".

    In other words, we English are behind the times, although not as much as Americans who persist with the Elizabethan "gotten".