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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Paella


Almost everyone who knows a single thing about Spain knows that paella is one of the signature dishes of this country. Most foreigners probably even know enough about paella to give a fairly complete recipe: rice, green beans, garrafón (butter beans), chicken, rabbit, a bit of garlic, tomato, and saffron. At least this is the recipe for Paella Valenciana, give or take an ingredient or two. What most people don't know is that for people who live in Valencia, paella is not just what you call the dish, it is the event of sharing a paella with friends or family. I was going to a paella at the country home of friends who just recently moved from my Valencia neighborhood of Ruzafa.

I met another friend of mine, who also lives in Ruzafa, at our favorite bar. Not only is Adrian from Ruzafa but—except for brief excursions like the one today—you couldn't get him to leave this neighborhood of Valencia under the threat of violence. Like me, he feels that Ruzafa is the center of the universe. To leave the center of the known universe (after a beer) we had to take the #1 metro line going south from the Plaza de España station.

In just a few stops the metro rises out of the tunnels and glides out of the city, past agricultural communities with mostly Arabic names which stand as witnesses to Valencia's centuries of Muslim rule. Most words beginning with “Al” stem from Arabic. This prefix represents the definite article in Arabic and besides a lot of local place names, you find many Spanish words derived similarly. Here in the countryside of Valencia, riding through the orange trees which were first brought here by the Moors, you see strange names like Font Almaguer, Alginet, Alfafar, L'Alcúdia, Al Farp, Albal, and today's destination of Catadau.

In the countryside, the language of Valenciano is much more widely spoken. You notice this sharp contrast the moment you leave the city limits of Valencia. We are met at the tiny metro stop by our hosts, a Frenchman and a native Valenciana. This means that two out of the four of us are local. It only seems natural that the language changes from Spanish to Valenciano. Just when I get to the point where I am almost completely comfortable with Spanish, it's time to start learning another language.

I watch a lot of television in Valenciano. There is one show in particular that I try to see as often as possible that is about bicycle touring in the Valencia Community. I can understand the language rather well if I make a big effort but I rarely hear it spoken in the city. Between my knowledge of French and my growing fluency in Spanish, Valenciano shouldn't be too difficult to pick up if I can just find a good grammar book. As I slowly but surely master Spanish, doors are continually opening for me—like this weekend in the countryside. I can only imagine that learning Valenciano will open even more doors—not only in Valencia but in Catalonia to the north and the Balearic Islands where the language is also spoken.

The first thing you need to know about paella is that it is best cooked on an open fire. It is hard to find stove tops big enough to accommodate some paella pans which can be as big as several meters in diameter. The one we will be using on this evenig is perhaps only one meter in diameter which would still present a challenge to most kitchen burners. A wood fire provides an even heat for the entire pan at an intensity capable of keeping the rice at a boil.

If you ask a 100 people from Valencia for advice on how to cook paella, you will receive 1,000 different recipes and you may have to officiate a few fistfights. You won't find a dish more traditional to the culture and history of Valencia and yet everyone has their own set of variations. For true Valencianos, the ingredients won't be too different from those I mentioned; you may see red pepper strips added or snails but the basic ingredients I gave are written in stone...somewhere. Every paellero, or paella cook, will have his or her own tricks to the process.

Our host's trick is to first brown the rabbit and chicken in the hot pan and then remove it. Very unorthodox. Next, he added a can of tomato puree with a bit of garlic. Next come the green beans and the butter beans. When these have all cooked he adds a bit of water and returns the meat to the fire. More water is added and when this comes to a boil the rice is added along with the saffron. He also added a couple of small branches of dried rosemary. Once the ingredients are thoroughly mixed you don't stir the pan. It simply boils down until the rice is cooked. A paella cooked on a wood fire is truly a thing of beauty, not to mention the aroma.

So besides the dish itself, the word “paella” can be used to describe the act of eating paella together with friends. I have been to paellas with 50 people or more, huge affairs staged by the neighborhood committees, called casals. During Fallas in Valencia, these casals will have paella cook-offs right in the street. Wood fires are lit in the road and several paellas will be cooked at once. A true paella is more of an event than a dish or a simple meal.

I would say that four people is the minimum crowd for a true paella. You can order an idividual serving of this rice dish in almost any restaurant in town, but a true paella should be served among friends who share from the same pan. Sharing and large family-size portions are more the rule than the exception in most Spanish cooking. This fits in well with my own philosophy as I rarely cook anything except in huge batches sufficient for feeding ten people at a time.

I doubt there is a better place to share a paella with friends than on a patio in the Valencian countryside, in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean although I will probably keep looking. After a few brutally hot days we were blessed with a perfect evening. I even briefly considered putting on a sweater until I thought about how silly that would be after surviving temperatures reaching almost 40 degrees only two days ago. Instead of a sweater I opted for another glass of red wine.

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