No seafood please, we’re Spanish! The Editor embarks on a quest to try the authentic Valencian-style paella, which has its roots in the marshes and not the Mediterranean as many people believe…
When it comes to Spanish travel stereotypes, enjoying a humungous plate of luminous-yellow seafood paella by an epic sweep of beach, washed down with a jug of iced sangria, is right up there with stomping our feet along to a castanet-clacking flamenco show or dicing with death at the San Fermines festival in Pamplona. It’s a fantasy that fuels our desire to visit Spain… however technically-speaking it’s an incorrect one, as Santos Ruiz, the director of Valencia’s rice board explains to me:
“In Valencia when we talk about the traditional paella we are always thinking of the paella we cook with rabbit, chicken and many different kinds of beans – never seafood. We do also eat rice with seafood and there are many other types of rice dishes, but then we don’t call them paella anymore: we call it arroz marinero, arroz a banda… we call them by different names.”
There’s no such thing as a seafood paella??? Next you’re going to tell me that Spanish people don’t drink sangria…
There’s no such thing as a seafood paella??? Next you’re going to tell me that Spanish people don’t drink sangria and that’s it just savvy restaurant owners’ way of sweetening cheap red wine and selling it to tourists at massively inflated prices!
My mouthwatering dreams of munching on mussels and succulent langostinos may have just been destroyed (I decide best not to ask about the sangria), but judging from the aromas of frying chicken and rabbit, saffron and paprika, that are wafting over the courtyard from Santos’ giant pan they are about to be replaced by something equally scrummy. It’s not often that the country’s foremost rice expert cooks you a specially-made paella, so I get a bit closer to observe how it’s done.
First the meat, chicken thighs on the bone and chunky cuts of rabbit (including rabbits’ heads), are thrown into the middle of the skillet and cooked for several minutes until browned, before they are moved to the pan’s perimeter to make way for the beans. The beans are cooked in turn and then moved to form a smaller concentric circle beside the meat. Next up tomato pulp is dropped into the middle of the saucepan (pictured above), before water is added to make a steaming meaty broth. Spices, salt and of course the saffron – which gives the dish its famous yellow colour – are all added and finally we are ready for the simple but star ingredient: the rice.
“In our gastronomy we require rice to absorb flavour,” says Santos. “We particularly grew and developed our rice to do this.”
“In our gastronomy we require rice to absorb flavour,” says Santos. “We particularly grew and developed our rice to do this. If you cook a paella with long grain or other varieties it would not be terrible, but it would not be the same. In Valenica we grow two different types of rice: the first one it’s called senia, as you can see it’s bigger. It absorbs the flavour very well but after 18 minutes it easily gets overcooked and takes on an unpleasant texture. The Spanish mothers who have cooked paella at home all their lives, they always use this type of rice [because it’s cheaper]. Those of us who cook professionally, we always must use the bomba variety. Why? Because bomba is a rice that absorbs the flavour as well as senia, but in addition it resists corruption. At around 18 minutes it is cooked but until about 22 minutes it keeps its structure.”
As he speaks Santos is beginning to sprinkle the bomba rice from his hand into the broth, distributing it evenly over the pan. The trick is, I’m told, to create a layer of rice no more than 1cm deep, as you want the rice at the top of the pan to have the same taste and texture as at the bottom. (And that’s also why if you want a bigger paella you need a bigger pan… you can’t just stuff more meat and rice into the same dish!). To really hit the nail on the head though, and impress your Spanish friends, you need to achieve what is known as soccarat. Soccarat is the golden caramelised crust of fried rice that you get at the bottom of the pan, which lets you know you’ve just reached the pinnacle of paella greatness. Santos puts his ear to the pan, listening to the frying sound… then prods the middle of the dish with his spoon.
Soccarat is the golden caramelised crust of fried rice that you get at the bottom of the pan, which lets you know you’ve just reached the pinnacle of paella greatness.
“Ok you have some soccarat there right now,” he declares. “Press with the spoon. There you can move it, here you cannot. Now is the decision to stop it.” And with that Santos switches off the gas supply to the ring, before this thin delicious crisp layer starts to burn, ruining the entire work.
“Do you prefer to taste it directly from the pan, like we normally do?” asks Santos.
Of course I do. And, proving that I’m not the best listener, I grab a fork and go straight for a chicken thigh…
“No no no, the most important bit is the rice,” says Santos steering me away from my gastro faux pas. “The meat has been cooking for a lot of time and now it doesn’t have much flavour. All the flavour is absorbed by the rice.”
“The most important bit is the rice,” says Santos steering me away from my gastro faux pas. “The meat has been cooking for a lot of time and now it doesn’t have much flavour.”
It’s true of course and the joy of the paella is that the rice becomes a kind of taste sponge, whereby all the flavours of the different ingredients in the dish are sucked up and then enjoyed in the crisp and clean texture of the perfectly cooked grains. Washed down with a crisp glass of Verdil white wine there’s little more I can say than it tasted spectacular.
As our group of bloggers and friends hover hungrily at the dish’s perimeter I note that there’s plenty of room for several of us to simultaneous dip our forks into the plate, and I begin to appreciate the special significance that the shape of the pan holds. It’s wide circular form make it perfect for friends and families to literally gather around. Santos tells me that it’s a time-honoured tradition – much like the beloved Great British roast lunch – for Valencians to meet their nearest and dearest at least once a week for their favourite dish. He even has an astute observation about how the ritual plays out.
I begin to appreciate the special significance that the shape of the pan holds. It’s wide circular form make it perfect for friends and families to literally gather around.
“Every Sunday we cook paella – the traditional one – and usually it’s the man that cooks it. It is a question of machismo. It happens in Valencia, but also in the rest of Spain and other countries – for example in the USA. Who is cooking the BBQ? It’s always the man. Because in this case it is he who is the protagonist at the party. Everything is around the BBQ, and in the same way everything is around the paella. Whoever is cooking the paella, all the guests are around you. In my opinion men don’t want to give this position to women, who are after all usually the ones cooking at home.”
It’s an interesting theory, but one that I’m going to leave well alone. After all there’s a delicious dish to be eaten… and I don’t really care too much who cooked it.
Top Paella Restaurants in Valencia
Santos’s paella was a revelation, but sadly it’s not available for general consumption. So I’ve turned to the blogosphere to ask some of Valencia’s recent visitors about the best rice dishes and restaurants they experienced on their travels… and of course I include my own top tip, and a recommendation from Santos himself. There’s also some more handy info, on the likes of cooking activities at the bottom of the article.
Casa Carmela do one of the best three paellas in the city, without doubt. This is the closest you can get to getting the home-cooked family paella in a restaurant. They cook it very slow and therefore it is essential that you make a reservation at least two hours before arriving as the owners don’t serve more than six paellas a day. As well as chicken and rabbit they also use duck, a meat that adds much to the dish’s flavour.
Review by Santos Ruiz.
Half an hour away by car/bus, lies one of Valencia’s top tourist attractions, the Albufera Lagoon in all its surreal and still beauty. Around a huge lake is an even larger amount of land given over to the rice fields where the grain has been grown for 1200 years, after being introduced to Spain by the Moors. Indeed Albufera is the exact spot where, according to myth at least, the paella originated from, with the marsh folk using whatever came to hand in their cooking. And whatever came to hand included snails by the way – which are still a mainstay of the archetypical Valencian paella. It was at Mateu restaurant in the small town of El Palmar that I finally got a taste of the real deal, snails and all – and I must say the inclusion of the shelled monopods adding a satisfyingly earthy quality to an already great dish, making it my favourite paella of the trip. Be sure to ask your waiter to include the critters, as they often assume tourists are too squeamish to eat snails!
Review by Duncan Rhodes.
You won’t meet any other tourists while eating paella at the traditional and totally tucked away Valencian eatery El Canyar, a stone’s throw from the bullring. But you might just bump into one of the hoards of celebs who have been fans of the Valencian cuisine on offer here for the past 30 years, from Daniel Craig to Yoko Ono, or simply content yourself with ogling the impressive photos of famous faces which line the walls. Once the paella arrives you’ll only have eyes for your lunch – or dinner; the restaurant and winery is open for both meals, every day except Sunday. Whether you pick a paella with duck, rabbit or prawn and monkfish you’ll know this is the good stuff by the shallow line of high quality rice lining the pan and the dark hue – owner Miguel explains that when the paella is piled high you know you’re in a tourist trap.
Review by Jaillan Yehia of Savoir There.
Located in the suburbs of Valencia, this restaurant offers us an authentic paella experience, way more than just enjoying a delicious meal. In Toni Montoliu’s restaurant you can pick your own vegetables in the garden for the salad or can even learn the secrets of cooking a paella from the chef. The food served on the table contains only local ingredients, mostly from the owner’s garden, and the paella is exquisite!
Within spitting distance from the beach, this vast restaurant terrace sprawls its way out towards the sands and simmers in the shade of swaying palm trees. A troop of paunchy waiters with salt and pepper moustaches patrol the tables, chatting jovially as they deliver giant paella pans and giant jugs of crimson sangria to the happiest diners in town. An expansive menu offers everything from garlic prawns and mussels to sirloin steaks and seasonal salads, but it’s the paella that plays the role of protagonist at this culinary institution. The classic ‘Valencian paella’ is a feast of chicken, rabbit and green beans — the way paella was originally served — but the house special ‘Pepica’s paella’, which is said to have been created for the famous Valencian painter Joaquin Sorolla, is an irresistible cocktail of perfectly cooked and ready-peeled shellfish, leaving you free to do sit back, eat, sip and soak up the sun.
La Riuà is a family owned establishment that serves traditional home-style Valencian cuisine. We stopped here for lunch on the recommendation of our Valencian friends and ordered the house specialty: Paella Valencia. It was a fantastic, moderately priced lunch. Paella, when properly prepared, is a rich, deep ochre color (not yellow as is often found in many places) and consists of rice cooked with chicken, rabbit, broad beans, lima beans and spices. We think of it as a distant cousin to the authentic Jambalaya of Gonzales, Louisiana, and like authentic jambalaya, Valencian paella is quite different and tastes much better than what is generally served to tourists. Note: When ordering authentic paella the wait time will be about 35 minutes, since it’s cooked to order, and available for a minimum of 2 people. La Riuà is located at Calle del Mar, 27 in the Viutat Vella. They open at 2:00 pm for lunch and, if you arrive close to that time, reservations may not be necessary, but remember that this is a popular place with the locals and tables fill up fast.
The Panorama Restaurant, is a swish modern eaterie located right on the jetty at the Valencia beach with a trendy open-air bar & restaurant, as well as a more elaborate indoor seating area. With a selection of paellas available (try the Valencia-style paella for the most authentic) and incredible panoramic views out over the Mediterranean, it’s a fantastic place for a leisurely meal.
Review by Adam Groffman of Travels of Adam.
If you want to sample two staples of Spanish culture in one night, then look no further than this Flamenco and Paella experience at Valencia’s finest tablao (flamenco venue). You get to experience the passionate refrains and distinctive dance moves of this gypsy song and dance as you tuck into the city’s iconic dish, perfectly prepared by their first-rate kitchen (Certificate of Excellence winner on Tripadvisor). You can reserve tickets for the combined show/dinner here.
If eating Spain’s favourite dish isn’t enough for you, try this hands-on activity where you hitch a ride out to a wonderful country house in Albufera (just 25 minutes drive from the city) and learn how to cook it as well. Surrounded by orange trees and rice fields, expert chefs teach you all you need to know on how to serve up the perfect rice platter as well as the stories and myths behind Valencia’s local gastronomy. This experience, offered by GetYourGuide, costs €68 per person and includes free private transport from the city centre, welcome snack with drink, a lunch of paella, salad, drink and dessert, a slice of homemade cake and liqueur and finally recipes and a participation certificate. Click here for more info and to reserve.
If all this talk has got you interested in the history of this iconic dish, as well as dropping by any of the restaurants above, you may enjoy a visit to the city’s Rice Museum housed in a beautiful old mill, full of 19th century production machinery, in the seaside Cabanyal district. Otherwise you can book a whole range of related experiences via the city’s official tourist website, including paella cooking workshops and also boat trips out on the beautiful Albufera lagoon, the home of the region’s rice fields.
Finally if you have decided to come to Valencia, be sure to check out Urban Travel Blog’s very own city break guide, with top tips on everything from cool hotels to funky things to do. And of course our other adventures in the amazing Turia riverbed gardens and in the hip and happening Ruzafa district.
Duncan would like to thank Visit Valencia and The Travel Mob for bringing him to the city and helping him discover it. You can find more recommendations of great places to eat on The Travel Mob’s blog.