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
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
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