When one thinks of Spanish cuisine, what may first come to mind? Paella, of course. But what do we really know about paella . . . how is it made? How did it originate? What is considered to be a traditional paella?
During Moorish rule in Spain in the 10th century, the Moors began rice cultivation. This led to a tradition of locals eating casseroles of rice with shellfish, fish, vegetables, beans, and local game. Rice became a Spanish staple by the 15th century.
Paella Valenciana is considered to be the “original” paella of Spain. “Paella” itself means “frying pan” in Valencian, the native language of the region. Paella Valenciana may be ancient in origin, but its modern form dates from the 1850’s rural area of the Albufera lagoon next to the city of Valencia. It was a lunchtime meal for the farmers. Gathering local ingredients, they would use the rice from their fields, and such other things as seasonally available: tomatoes, lima or butter beans, artichoke hearts, saffron, pimentón, and rosemary. Normally, the protein for paella would consist of rabbit, chicken, snails, and/or duck. They cooked the rice in the open air, using fire made from orange tree branches, pine branches, and pine cones. The aromatic smoke from the fire would infuse the paella, and the people would eat directly out of the pan, instead of using plates.
Cooking the paella is an art unto itself. The abbreviated recipe is: meats, fish, and/or vegetables and legumes, are cooked first in garlic infused olive oil. Then, sweet pimentón mixed with tomato is added. Broth or water is next, brought to a boil, and then the rice is added. Paella is made from short grain Bomba rice, which is an ancient strain of rice. This strain of rice is preferred because it can absorb three times its volume; perfect for absorbing the liquid used in making the paella. It is then cooked until the liquid is totally absorbed by the rice, about 30 minutes.
The shallow metal pan allows the rice to be thinly spread in order to form a crust at the end of cooking. . . the “socarrat.” This is essential. From the Spanish verb socarrar (meaning to singe), the crispy, savory crust forms by cooking the paella on high heat in the last moments. The rice will smell toasty and there will be a crispy, slightly hard layer, at the bottom of the pan, that pulls up together when you take a spoonful. Paella is not risotto, its creamy Italian counterpart, so do not think that the paella is overdone. When you taste it, you will appreciate its texture and distinct flavor.
As the Valenciagans would say, all other Spanish rice dishes, even if cooked in a paella pan, in actuality, should be called “arroz con otras cosas;” meaning: rice with other things. While we do not adhere to the nomenclature, (we call all of our rice dishes “paellas”), you are certainly in for a treat when you order one. Crispy, chewy texture, savory and delicious, our bodega paellas are worth the wait, so be sure to order one right away, as they are made fresh to order and take about 40 minutes to be ready at your table.