How to Find the Right Paella
OK. Paella. Marc told me I could call ahead and reserve a paella, so the next day, at 11:30am, I call the restaurant we’ve chosen from this simple list with just four suggestions for places in Valencia where you can get a legitimate paella. Apparently it’s easy to walk into any old tourist trap, get a paella de micoroondas (microwave), and think you’ve eaten the real thing. The chef at El Gran Azul comes from a family of arrocería cooks and his paellas are cooked over a wood fire (a leña).
What else makes for a legitimate paella? That depends, of course, on who you ask, and I’m not going to give you MY opinion since I’ve only been here for two weeks and I’ve only eaten one paella so far (ask me about tacos, not paellas). But I will give you Marc’s opinion. He was born in the Comunidad Valenciana and has lived in the city of Valencia for years now. Yes, he’s half French, but we won’t hold that against him:
- The paella must be eaten in Valencia (sorry Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla and other Spanish tourist destinations serving up paella to foreigners). It’s not for the atmosphere, it’s because the rice is grown here in the Albufera, a lagoon surrounded by rice fields. Paella should also be eaten here because the water it’s cooked in (never broth, always water) has its own taste. The water in Valencia, according to Marc, is a hard, mineral-filled water that changes the taste of the paella (and makes me think too much when I have a glass from the tap now).
- The paella shouldn’t have too much rice, or too much “other stuff” either. The cast iron pan that the paella is cooked in (the pan itself is called a paella), is large and shallow and shouldn’t be stuffed with ingredients; the contents should be spread out for maximum absorption of flavor and for producing the effect of the socarraet (see next bullet point).
- There should be a coating of socarraet: a caramelized residue on the bottom of the pan that lightly toasts (not burns) the bottom layer of rice.
El Gran Azul
Calling ahead to El Gran Azul is good because we only have Bilingual Baby from 12pm to 3pm before she goes back to school, and it takes about twenty minutes to cook a paella (or, eighteen minutes according to this guy…nada de 20 minutos). Speaking of eighteen, that’s about how many Euros it looked like a paella Valenciana would cost, which seemed super reasonable to me. But I became suspicious of that price when we arrived and saw how sparkling and fashionable the entire place was (I felt out of place barging in with my 4-year-old and her bicycle helmet, and when Lyon arrived he commented on his own cutoff shorts, wishing he had changed before coming). It turns out paella prices are listed by portion. So our paella was eighteen Euros per person; all paella prices are by person (por racion)…just so you know. Jojo did a pretty good job keeping it classy, and downed most of the olives at the table before the paella arrived.
Most foreigners, understandably, assume that the typical paella here involves seafood; we’re on the Mediterranean coast after all. But the “original” recipe is one that the campesinos, workers in the countryside, threw together under the shade of whatever olive or orange tree was nearby at lunchtime (between 2pm and 4pm). The rice dish was cooked over an open wood fire outside (which is why “real” paella today is cooked over a wood fire), and they threw in what they had at their disposal: snails and rabbits from the fields, and green beans and artichokes from the crops. And that’s how we ended up with this large, earthy concoction before us at El Gran Azul.
I managed to eat one snail, but felt bad. I’ve always had a soft spot for the little guys. Lyon ate a few. Jojo thought it was interesting that they were in our food, but just opted for green beans and meat (which we didn’t exactly tell her was rabbit…we are very into Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter these days). The rice had a strong flavor. I think a lot of the taste actually came from the artichoke, but I felt like I could taste those hearty minerals from Valencia’s water also—who knows.
When we showed Marc pictures of the paella, he approved of the amount of rice, the contents and the socarraet. The only thing that slightly disappointed him was that we were given plates to serve our portions onto, instead of one wooden spoon with which to scoop right out of the pan.
We did a pretty good job finishing the paella (except for the number of uneaten snails we left behind in their shells), but I will say it was a little intense for me. I think it’s also sometimes OK to get a three-Euro “paella” a la microondas in a good ol’ tourist trap restaurant. Here’s Lyon doing just that a few days later….(Sshhhhhh, don’t tell Marc).