THE GLOBAL GOURMET Against the grain

If there’s a pep­per in your paella, it’s not proper, re­ports An­drew Purvis This is what might be called ex­treme paella, a rus­tic dish us­ing what­ever in­gre­di­ents are found lo­cally

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

T is a blis­ter­ing 38C in El Pal­mar, Spain, a vil­lage on the edge of l’Al­bufera la­goon, 16km south of Va­len­cia. Slap­ping on sun­block and don­ning a wide-brimmed hat, I step aboard Mano­lin’s new boat (‘‘I fin­ished it two days ago,’’ he says) and sit gin­gerly on the hot var­nish. Shaped like a gon­dola, the flat-bot­tomed ves­sel is ideal for nav­i­gat­ing the canals that flow into l’Al­bufera, where fish­er­men catch eels with tra­di­tional fun­nel-shaped nets.

All around us are lush green pas­tures of what looks like grass, but they are in fact the rice pad­dies where most of the re­gion’s crop is grown. Va­len­cian paella, de­clared by lo­cals to be the orig­i­nal and best, first found form here in this flooded land­scape where (along with rice) snails, ducks and rab­bits thrive.

As we set off, we dis­turb a heron stalk­ing eels in the shal­lows; it takes off in slow mo­tion, swoop­ing low over the glassy wa­ter.

Af­ter a few min­utes, Mano­lin heads for the edge of the lake and points his boat at the bul­rushes. The prow bursts through into a se­cret in­let where man­i­cured lawns sweep down to moor­ings; be­yond is a mod­ern build­ing sur­rounded by teak deck­ing, with restau­rant ta­bles be­neath stylish cal­ico canopies.

This is Nou Raco, sleekly re­fur­bished for the Amer­ica’s Cup yacht race, held in Va­len­cia in 2007. With its many din­ing spa­ces (some for ban­quets, oth­ers more in­ti­mate) and a rooftop bar of­fer­ing spec­tac­u­lar views of the la­goon at sun­set, it ap­peals to the bright young things of Va­len­cia, and lovers of paella, served here and at the other 26 restau­rants in El Pal­mar.

But to­day I am hav­ing lunch at a more rus­tic es­tab­lish­ment, La Matandeta in El Saler, half­way be­tween Va­len­cia and El Pal­mar. With my guide from Va­len­cia Guias, Josep Al­berola, I sit on the shady ter­race and en­joy ap­pe­tis­ers and a beer.

When the paella ar­rives, I am shocked: in­stead of the ex­pected yel­low rice, we are pre­sented with a dish that is en­tirely green. Th­ese are the sliced fer­radura (green beans) that are es­sen­tial to any Va­len­cian paella.

As we serve our­selves from the round pan, we part the beans to re­veal the golden rice un­der­neath. Scat­tered on top are knob­bly, bony chunks of rab­bit and

Shop­ping around: The cen­tral mar­ket in Va­len­cia sells ev­ery­thing from pur­ple-tinged ar­ti­chokes to snails and live eels chicken, suc­cu­lent pieces of duck, and snails in their hum­bug-striped shells.

The flavours of all four have in­fused the melt­ingly soft grains and, as I delve into them, I find but­tery white lima beans (gar­ro­fon) that add to the dish’s vel­vety rich­ness. This is what might be called ex­treme paella, a rus­tic dish us­ing what­ever in­gre­di­ents are found lo­cally; it’s a mil­lion miles from the ver­sion served in ev­ery tourist town, with no veg­eta­bles, only seafood and (hereti­cal, this) chicken.

‘‘ We would never mix seafood and meat,’’ Josep tells me the next day as we tour the or­nately tiled Mer­cado Cen­tral in Va­len­cia, dat­ing from the 1920s.

He is hor­ri­fied by paella atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted else­where in Spain. ‘‘ Never use stock,’’ he says, rolling his eyes to­wards the glazed dome of the mar­ket, ‘‘ only wa­ter, then saf­fron. If I de­tected stock, I’d take it back.’’

Off the Plaza de la Reina, the tourist­thronged main square, he has even seen a cart­wheel-sized paella (the name of the pan as well as the dish) with por­tions of rice miss­ing, dished up by the chef as re­quired. ‘‘ It must be made fresh each time,’’ Josep in­sists, ‘‘ so look out for the words ‘ for two per­sons’ on menus.’’

That is the min­i­mum size prac­ti­cal, so a sin­gle por­tion is likely to be frozen and re­heated. Be sus­pi­cious, too, of paella that ar­rives in un­der 20 min­utes; it won’t have been cooked to or­der.

And re­mem­ber, paella is only eaten at lunchtime, never in the evening.

While beans are the tra­di­tional veg­eta­bles, the sight of pur­ple-tinged ar­ti­chokes at the mar­ket re­minds Josep that his mother uses those. In fact, most veg­eta­bles are al­lowed, apart from pota­toes and two oth­ers.

‘‘ We never use red pep­pers or peas,’’ Josep says, ‘‘ yet you see them ev­ery­where else in Spain.’’ The other veg­etable in­gre­di­ent to avoid is gar­lic.

We tour the mar­ket, shop­ping for rice. La Fallera is the most con­spic­u­ous brand, Bomba (sold in small hes­sian sacks) the gourmet op­tion and, at ($6.70), three times the price. Next we visit An­to­nio Cata­lan, who spe­cialises in herbs and spices, es­pe­cially pa­prika.

I thrust my nose into one jar and the aroma is slightly toma­toey; milder, less­fiery va­ri­eties are best for paella. The other key in­gre­di­ent is saf­fron, to colour the rice. Here, it is pun­gent and al­most of­fen­sive, and so ex­pen­sive that many cooks use yel­low food dye in­stead.

At the snail stall, where the gas­tropods are sold like mus­sels in net bags, I am told that the very best (cost­ing each) graze only on rose­mary, while the tra­di­tional ones to use in a paella are called ba­queta fina.

Nearby, I no­tice eels squirm­ing in a tank. ‘‘ My mother will only buy them alive, never dead,’’ says Josep, and his early child­hood mem­ory of her slaugh­ter­ing the eels at home, in a bucket of blood, has put him off try­ing them.

At La Riua, a tra­di­tional, fam­ily-run restau­rant, he still can’t be per­suaded.

I or­der all-i-pe­bre (eels in a gar­lic and pa­prika sauce), a favourite among the fish­er­men of El Pal­mar. De­liv­ered in a steam­ing paella pan, it is a sea of red­dish-

In­fused flavours: Va­len­cia paella or­ange sauce with diced pota­toes and sil­ver-grey chunks of eel break­ing the sur­face. The flavour is earthy and pi­quant but the tex­ture alien; the eels are slightly flabby, their back­bones crunchy like sar­dines. By com­par­i­son, the duck, rab­bit and snails I ate ear­lier seem like com­fort food.

Va­len­cian paella is a world away from the dish syn­ony­mous with Span­ish pack­age hol­i­days: a greasy kedgeree of squid, mus­sels, prawns, chicken, peas and diced red pep­pers. Tele­graph Group Ltd

Check­list

Car­retera de El Pal­mar 21, El Pal­mar; +34 96 162 0172. La Matandeta Car­retera Al­fa­far, El Saler; +34 96 211 2184. La Riua Calle del Mar 27, Va­len­cia; +34 96 391 4571. www.nouraco.com www.bar­ran­coplaya.com www.va­len­ci­aguias.com www.co­mu­ni­tat­va­len­ciana.com

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