Paella is a Valencian rice dish, which originated in the 18th Century. The Moors began cultivating rice in Spain, perhaps as far back as the 8th and 9th Centuries and the marshes and lagoon of L’Albufera, (in the south of Valencia) proved to be a perfect place for paddy fields (though rice is cultivated all over Spain). Originally rice dishes would have been cooked in cauldrons or terracotta cazuelas – soupy stews of fish or meat, such as a Caldero Murciano or oven baked meat and rice with beaten eggs on top like Arroz con Costra. Paella became popular from about 1840 onwards and takes its name from the pan it’s cooked in – a wide but shallow polished or coated steel frying pan with handles on either side, ideal for cooking outdoors over an open orange wood and pine fire which provides a smokey flavour. Having become extremely popular with Spaniards and tourists alike, versions of paella can be found all over Spain and as far afield as British supermarkets. Much to the consternation of Valencian chefs and traditionalists, the fairly specific regional ingredients have become adapted, often mixing fish and meat – the worst transgression being the addition of chorizo, which is not found in any of the above mentioned rice dish recipes. Some of the “best” British celebrity chefs have played a big part in adulterating Spanish regional food. Read the 6 pages of comments on this paella recipe to see how heated the debate can get. The revered Catalan writer Josep Pla said this, “The abuses committed in the name of Paella Valenciana, are excessive – an absolute scandal.”
To defend against the corruption of their regional food heritage, an organisation of Valencian celebrities from the world of culture, gastronomy and society has been set up, called Wikipaella. Their aim is, “To encourage knowledge and acknowledgement of authentic paellas.” Wikipaella lists 3 types of authentic paella, with acceptable ingredients: Paella Valenciana, Arroz a Banda/Senyoret and Paella de Conejo y Caracoles. Arròs a Banda is probably the origin of Paella de Marisco (with Arròs Meloso somewhere in between them and the cauldron), served all along the coast of Valencia and Cataluña (and probably the rest of Spain).
Arròs a Banda is mostly rice and fish stock, without seafood on top. All traditional paellas were peasant dishes, cooked in the fields or onboard fishing boats, so the ingredients were cheap and whatever people had to hand. In the case of fishermen, they used the fish and fish parts that they couldn’t sell. Apparently Arròs a Banda dates back to the Ancient Greeks, who prepared fish with saffron, in a cauldron over an open fire (the Greeks colonised the Mediterranean coast of Spain, 500 years or so, before the Romans arrived). Spanish fishermen cooked the same, adding rice to the pot some time after the Reconquista. Rice consumption decreased in popularity for a while, after the expulsion of the Moors (in no small part due to mosquitoes and malaria in the rice fields), but by the 16th Century, rice production was on the increase. Arròs a Banda is eaten apart from the fish that’s cooked in the same caldero, hence the translation, rice apart, though I’ve also seen it translated as, rice in abundance.
I was asked to cook something nice for a small outdoor birthday this week. My suggestion of a seafood paella was met with a resounding, “Yes!” Paella is traditionally cooked over a wood fire to impart a smokey flavour, but a barbecue can be a reasonable compromise and keeps everything outside. It’s quite common for Spanish people to use purpose built dual ring gas burners these days – some restaurants (and the Valencians consider this to be sacrilege) even use purpose built paella ovens!
Paella de Marisco receta:
500g Spanish Bomba or Senia rice
2 pints fish stock
1 medium squid (diced)
8 – 10 large prawns
8 – 10 mussels
1 small onion (finely chopped)
6 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
1 romano pepper (a pointed sweet red pepper) (finely chopped)
3 tomatoes (grated)
a glass of dry white wine
2 teaspoons pimentón de la Vera dulce
a large pinch of saffron
a dessertspoon fresh parsley (chopped)
lemon wedges (to serve)
You will notice that I cooked two paellas – the top one contains Spanish El Aeroplano food colouring, added with the stock to give the rice a vibrant orange/yellow colour. The second, arròs negre (black rice) paella contains two sachets of cuttlefish ink added with the stock to make the rice go black. Otherwise, the recipes are the same.
First cook the prawns gently until the go pink, then reserve for later. Cook the onions in the middle of the pan – keep them moving until they take some colour. Move the onion to the outside of the pan, which is cooler and fry the romano pepper in the middle (a red bell pepper will do). Move the pepper to the outside of the pan with the onion, while you fry the chopped squid in the center. Mix the squid with the vegetables and move them to the outside. Grate 3 tomatoes (discard the skin) into the middle of the paellera. Cook for a minute or two and combine with the other ingredients. Add the parsley and garlic, then sprinkle on the pimentón de la Vera dulce (mild). Give everything a good stir before thoroughly mixing in the rice.
Have the stock hot and ready – make it yourself (as per mine, here) or use a good quality stock from your fishmonger. Pour the stock into the paellera, along with the wine. Use a good pinch of Spanish saffron, as much as you can afford – it’s the stamen of crocuses and is the world’s most expensive spice. Grind the saffron with a mortar and pestle (a trick taught to me by a Persian lady to increase permeation), pour on a splash of boiling water and mix into the paella. Add the food colouring or cuttlefish ink now. The Turn the heat up and give it one final stir. Taste and add seasoning if necessary, but if the stock tasted right (beforehand), it shouldn’t be necessary.
Place the uncooked mussels and cooked prawns around the dish. On an open fire or Spanish paella hob, the stock reduction and absorption takes about 5 minutes. With a domestic hob it takes 8 – 10 minutes. When you can see that the liquid has reduced, but there’s still a little below the rice, reduce the heat to half way. Cook for a further 5 minutes at which point almost all the liquid should have been absorbed. Poke the wrong end of a spoon into the pan to check if you have any doubts. Remove from the heat and cover the paella with newspaper (or a double thickness of kitchen towel) for 5 minutes – not a lid! The paper keeps the dish warm and absorbs the steam, so that it doesn’t condense and drip back down onto the rice. Sprinkle on a little parsley for decoration.
Paella is traditionally served at lunchtime, warm, not hot and is eaten with a wooden spoon, straight from the pan with a wedge of lemon and allioli. A large plate of paella is often a starter on a menú del dia, but it can cooked to order, in a large paellera, as a dish to share among friends.
I made a huge batch of gazpacho – handed out when people arrived.