In our Brindisa Borough Market store, we would often be caught in passionate discussions over the origins of Spanish dishes, so proud are our staff of their regional cuisine. Nobody however could deny that the inventors of paella were the Valencians.
Rice to Valencians is what pasta is to Italians; an art form, a way of life. It’s not surprising that they choose to celebrate their grandest fiesta, Las Fallas, by cooking gigantic paellas in the street. Valencia is surrounded by rice fields and boasts countless amazing rice recipes, but the one dish they are truly proud of and give their name to, is Paella Valenciana. First documented in 1840, it has become their Sunday lunch, a firm family favourite.
I visited the Valencian district of El Saler to see how they celebrated Fallas. Outside the casal (a falla is a social club, they are all over the city and have their own houses known as casals) two men were frying joints of chicken and rabbit in an enormous paella over a wood fire. The smell was mouth-watering and as the meat turned a perfect shade of brown they added a little tomato, green beans and garrofón (a large white bean). Once the chefs were satisfied that everything was sufficiently golden, water was poured to the level of the pan handles and saffron, paprika and salt were added. We left it to simmer and form an intense rich stock whilst we enjoyed a cold beer and warmed up our appetite with olives and habas fritas (fried and salted broad beans).
As the broth reached a steady boil caracoles (small snails) were added. An hour later the locally produced arroz bomba (bomba rice) was poured in and shimmered across to form a thin even layer. We watched with delight as the rice soaked up the flavoursome liquid. The locals gathered around to give their expert opinions, mostly ‘que buena pinta tiene’ which roughly translates as ‘ooh it’s looking good’. When a crackling sound was audible amongst the chatter, it was time for two burly men to remove the paella from the flames and let it rest.
Normally paellas are eaten directly from the pan with a spoon, it is a lovely ritual which unites family and friends around the table. As we were a group of over 50, the paella was ladled and heaped onto plates. The first spoonful was heavenly. The meat slipped off the bone, tenderly, the garrofón were creamy and the sweetness of the green beans found their match with the earthy golden rice. Each grain was succulent and the toasted bottom was to die for. Though Valencians usually only eat rice at lunchtime it was the perfect fuel for a night filled with dancing, drinking and spectacular fireworks, which just like the paella, they do on an epic scale.