Just south of Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, lies the Albufera, a freshwater lake separated from the sea by a spit of land. More than a thousand years ago, the Moors introduced the cultivation of rice in the marshy wetlands surrounding the lake, and rice is still grown here. This is the home of paella, Spain’s famous rice dish.
Smack in the middle of shimmering paddies, not far from the city, is the Restaurant La Matandeta. Manuel Baixauli, 67, is the paella cook at La Matandeta. On a Sunday afternoon he may cook as many as 30 paellas-170 servings.
Baixauli did not always cook paella for paying customers. He used to be a farmer. In fact, the restaurant is housed in what once was the cow barn. The rice fields start right at the edge of the restaurant’s terrace.
He fans a fire beneath a blackened grate. When it is blazing, he sets a wide steel paella pan on the grate, adds some olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. Then he puts in pieces of duck, chicken and rabbit and lets them brown very slowly.
“The secret to good paella is the sofrito,” he says. Sofrito is the mixture of ingredients that are fried to develop flavor. “Real slow,” he says. “There’s no rush.”
He adds a little chopped garlic and grated tomato pulp and continues frying. Next come wide flat green beans and big fat lima beans, called garrafon. Only when the meat is nicely browned and almost cooked does he add liquid-part water and part stock. And a sprig of fresh rosemary, a dozen big snails, already cooked, and a golden mixture of real saffron and yellow coloring.
Baixauli adds some fast-burning twigs to the fire to stoke it very hot and bring the liquid to a boil. Then he pours the rice into the pan in the form of a cross. Once the ingredients are distributed evenly in the pan, the paella is never stirred again. It bubbles gently as Manuel lets the fire die back.
Finally the paella is served, golden yellow and fragrant. We scoop up portions of tender rice with some of the socorrat, the crusty, toasted layer from the bottom of the pan. The rice is delicious, moist and redolent of the rich flavors of the meats, snails and saffron.
This is how paella is made where it comes from, in the rice-growing region of Albufera.
If you learned to love paella as made anywhere else in the world, you might be surprised to find that authentic Valencia paella contains no seafood. That’s right-no shrimp, no lobster, no mussels or clams, no squid. Nor will you find sausage or brazen strips of red pimento.
Paella on its home ground contains beans and snails, rabbit or chicken, possibly duck. (The rice, of course, colored by saffron, is a sunny yellow color.) But even within the confines of authenticity, there is room for variation. Although authentic Valencia paella is the one with chicken, rabbit, snails and beans, other rice dishes are cooked in the paella pan. As one Valenciano put it, “There is only one true paella, but there are many paellas.”
One popular variation, which turns up in other regions of Spain, is made with chicken plus shellfish and is usually flamboyantly garnished with shrimp and strips of red pimento. Another rice dish cooked in the paella pan is arroz a banda, rice with fish “on the side,” a fishermen’s dish typical of the Alicante, south of Valencia. The rice cooks with a flavorful fish broth and is served plain, with boiled fish and garlic sauce as a separate dish.
“There’s no official recipe for paella,” declares Santos Ruiz Alvarez, a young agricultural engineer who heads the regulating council for the Rice of Valencia denomination board-Denominacion de Origen Arroz de Valencia. “Here they use green beans and lima beans, but 15 miles north, my mother puts fava beans and artichokes in her paella.”
What is essential to authentic paella is short-grain Valencia rice. This type of rice is not supposed to cook “every grain separate.” It is not “fluffy” rice. Its great virtue is as a “flavor conductor,” soaking up the savory juices with which it cooks-chicken and rabbit, the herbal essence of snails, fresh vegetables, the heady scent of saffron.
Driving country lanes in the Albufera wetlands, one can see the complex system of irrigation channels, dikes, sluice gates and water wheels introduced by the Moors and still in use here 10 centuries later.
Alvarez says the people of the Albufera traditionally lived by hunting, fishing and growing rice. The original paella was a dish cooked by the rice reapers, who made their midday meal from what was at hand-rice, eels, wild duck, wild rabbit, snails, frogs’ legs-cooked over a wood fire in a shallow, flat-bottomed pan.
Where a family vegetable plot was at hand, beans, artichokes or other vegetables found their way into the rustic paella. Thus evolved the dish known around the world as paella.
Three varieties of rice are grown in Valencia-Bahia, Senia and Bomba. All three are short grain and have the perla, a white “pearl” where the starch is concentrated.
Any of them can be used for paella. Bomba, with its shorter grain, is especially appreciated for caldoso (soupy) rice dishes, because its starch doesn’t expand and get sticky if overcooked.
In Valencia, Alvarez says, paella is a dish for Sunday dinner, when the whole family gets together. It’s always served in the afternoon, never at night.
“On weekends in the country,” says Santos, “the men cook the paella. Even if they would never cook at home, outdoors they’re in charge.”
The festive get-together begins in the late morning. While the kids romp, the adults play cards or catch up on a week’s gossip. About noon the guys start gathering wood for the fire. Prunings from orange and olive trees and grape vines are ideal.
Once the fire is blazing and the big paella pan leveled on a tripod, the cooking begins. First, you make the sofrito, slowly browning the meat and vegetables. Then liquid is added with a sprig of fresh rosemary. How much liquid? Right up to the level of the rivets where the handles are attached.
When the liquid comes to a boil, the rice is poured in. Everything bubbles on a brisk fire for a few minutes. Then, as the flames subside, the rice finishes cooking gently. After a few minutes to “repose” and finish cooking, the paella is served. Everybody gathers round to eat the rice straight out of the pan.
What’s the secret for making great paella?
“Practice every Sunday,” says Alvarez.