If you thought Spaniards were passionate about their ham, just ask a Valencian about paella and wait for the fireworks. Paella is considered Spain’s unofficial national dish, but it originated in the province of Valencia, where the residents have strong opinions on what constitutes authentic paella.
Many years ago, on my first visit to Spain, I sat on the terrace of a hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the Costa Brava and enjoyed a dish of paella. It arrived steaming in a wide brimmed oval bowl filled with shrimp, clams, fish and octopus, on a bed of fragrant rice. “There” I thought, “I’ve had the real thing, a Spanish paella. That’s it.”
Since then, I’ve had different versions — one with chicken in Madrid, one with vegetables in Barcelona, one with seafood and chorizo and white beans in Palma de Majorca.
But it wasn’t until I was presented with an authentic Valencia paella in the countryside near Alicante that I realized the truth- the others were mutations of the original. And the original was a true classic culinary jewel, one passionately defended and steeped in history, redolent with the flavours and history of its place of origin.
The revelation came during lunch at Restaurant Elias in Xinorlet, a small town nestled between rocky hills and olive groves in the Alicante region, part of the community of Valencia. The paella served here had been rated number one in Spain – and therefore in the world — by El Pais, the highest daily circulation national newspaper of Spain. This was as authentic as it could get.
The seriousness with which the chef Elías Rodríguez takes his paella is evident immediately – the first thing you see when entering the restaurant is the glass walled kitchen with its open hearth fire.
The chef invited me in to see his preparations and to display the simple and carefully curated ingredients for his paella – salt, pepper, ground cloves, saffron, broth, and rice.
On the grill, portions of rabbit were browning. Large flat paella pans stood ready, and the fire was being stoked with vine and orange tree branches. A bowl of locally foraged snails stood waiting. (Because the snails munch on rosemary that grows wild everywhere here, there is no need to add the herb to the paella as the snails are already ‘infused’.)
This is what I learned at Restaurant Elias about paella:
Its origins are humble – the dish was originally created by farmers who used a bit of rice and whatever they could find to cook a midday meal over an open fire. The traditional ingredients would be rabbit, local snails, perhaps some beans and rice and water.
A paella should be cooked over an open fire, preferably one made from local grape vines, ideally the monastrell grape vines, or orange or olive tree branches. The fire imparts a smoky taste to the dish.
Paella, unlike a risotto, should not be stirred but left undisturbed.
The rice must be short grain. Rice was introduced to Spain by the Moors, over 1200 years ago and Valencia is the most important rice-producing area in Spain.
Bomba rice is the brand of preference for paella, a product of the district of Valencia.
The rice is the most important ingredient, indicated by the fact that paella on Spanish menus is labelled ‘arroz’, the Arabic word for rice. Thus, arroz de conejo y caracoles (rice with rabbit and snails) or arroz de pollo ( rice with chicken)
The rice should never be overpowered by other ingredients.
An authentic paella should have a very thin layer of rice. The Valencians say that the cooked rice should be only as thick as un ditet, or the width of a small finger. This allows for the maximum amount of rice to touch the bottom of the pan, producing the delicious crispy, caramelized edges known as ‘socarrat’, and prized.
A good paella should be eaten directly from the pan, with diners beginning at the edges and working toward the middle. It is a dish to be shared.
The paella that I was served at Restaurant Elias was perfect, an authentic melody of local ingredients prepared in the traditional method. It was like eating history – very tasty history. Accompanied by a glass of El Tarima, a full bodied red from the Volver Winery in Alicante, and preceded by grill-toasted bread, homemade aioli and a tomato jam, this was a meal to savour and to remember.
And now I can say with authority that I have had the authentic Spanish paella and it was amazing. Not to say that other versions are wrong or bad, but there is a certain sincerity and honesty and attention to the quality of ingredients about the original that is very satisfying.
In the paella wars, Valencia wins, and Restaurant Elias leads the charge.
Rosales 7, Xinorlet (Alicante)
Tel: (+34) 966 979 517