Paella Valencià, the Queen of paellas has often been a source of controversy as well as the most hotly debated here in Spain as to what should, or should not, be in it.
Last year the Valencian Government, at the behest of a group of restauranters who had created the Platform for the Defence of Valencian Paella, declared a Denominación d´Origen to protect its identity as well as protecting some tourists from some of the worst atrocities masquerading as Paella. I posted about this in my blog (Ricardo´s Valencian Blog, see archives October 2011) detailing the permitted ingredients and the way in which it should be made.
The debate has not closed. As I highlighted then every family in Valencia has its own recipe and there are genuine regional variations reflecting the use of local ingredients.
There are also some permitted alternatives. All of this goes in the end towards Paella Valencià being something created by or reflecting the soul of the cook as eminent journalist Paco Alonso put it.
Has it worked? Well , sadly not. This week Paco has dedicated his blog and his columns in National newspapers to highlighting what he calls ` arrocidades ´ or atrocities. Those of us who follow the debate have seen photographs of Valencian Paella (sic) from Cuba with fruit , fish and sausages included ( all outside the DO permitted list) and this week Tesco, a UK supermarket chain, has launched a Paella Sandwich only to be followed by a well known chain, Pizza Hut, creating a paella pizza and launching it in Poland with a poster campaign including a bullfighter.
At least in Spain and Valencia in particular there are no problems now? You may think so but you would be wrong. Carmencita, sells an instant paella mix…..just add water and cook ( you know the sort! ) Even on the streets of Valencia commercial paellas are sold masquerading as the real thing whilst being made up of a variety of non-permitted ingredients.
To give Paco his due he has founded a group of gastronauts using Facebook as its base and yesterday, 21 April, the Platform for Gastronomic Information (PIG) descended by appointment on `El Rek´ in El Palmar for a workshop on paella and a meal to be followed by a boat trip on the Albufera lagoon.
Let me explain for those who do not know Valencia. El Palmar is an old fishing village in the Albufera National Park. Today it consists of almost entirely restaurants and on Sundays in particular half of Valencia descends on the town to eat its favourite meal. It also receives coach loads of tourists almost every day so you might expect there to be plenty of opportunity for sharp practice!
I think not! The paella police are very active here and any straying from the norm would be pounced upon. Perhaps the only sharp practice is that restaurants can charge a bit more here because of their popularity!
El Rek is a one of the larger restaurants with space for 411 diners inside. Lola Bru Benaches runs this establishment and yes, even yesterday when 23 PIGs attended the master class given by champion cocinera Amparo , coachloads of Austrian tourists and families celebrating weddings or new born babies filled the restaurant to groaning point!
You might think restaurants would quiver with fear when faced with such a motley crew of experts, journalists, bloggers, a lawyer, business owners and food-writers who have Valencian gastronomy firmly inscribed on their collective psyche! No…Lola was confident enough to leave her champion chef outside in the car-park with us to slowly cook a Valencian Paella and describe what she was doing as she went along. As the San Miguels flowed and the cameras clicked no special secrets were divulged but to all of us it was clear that quality ingredients were the key, slow cooking so that the meat was tender and so that all the flavours, including saffron, were fully integrated into and absorbed by the rice ( bomba) .
Once the rice had been added we moved to our allocated table and enjoyed some classic tapas whist waiting for the `tour de force´. For the record Esgarret, ( salt cod and peppers ) with smoked tuna slices was followed by Alli Pebre, eel and potato stew ( Amparo is a champion cook of this local speciality too!) soon disappeared to be followed by the paella…..a wonderful example of the real thing to which snails had been added!
The rice had fully absorbed the flavor of the three vegetables, the chicken and rabbit and was separating nicely. This was one of the best paellas I had enjoyed.
No meal is complete without a dessert! Plates of sliced Valencian oranges with cointreau were followed by Coca ( or bizcocho) , a lemon flavoured cake and rollitos ( biscuits) with anis and the inevitable mistela…..a sweet muscatel wine fortified with alcohol, and finally coffee.
It is not difficult to see why this restaurant is so popular! It should be on everyones itinerary for a traditional Valencian lunch including paella!
Finally the gastro tour and paella inspection over, the assembled PIGs embarked, bravely given the wind, on a trip in a long boat through the canals, the reed beds and out onto the lake with its views of Valencia and inevitable wildlife such as herons and ducks.
I fail to see why it is necessary to create new versions of Valencian Paella! The real thing cooked well is one of the gastronomic wonders of the world!