Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Paella Valencia

"It's pronounced pah-e-yah," he said. I repeated after him but it didn’t match up to his standard. "You got to say it with a lilt ('song' was the word he used to explain). Bring a little romance into it," he smiled. "Pah-e-yah," I said. "Almost there," he exclaimed triumphantly. I was at the century-old La Marcelina, a renowned classic in Valencia, the home of paella, and it was the gracefully-grey chief steward who was playing tutor. When it’s the paella being discussed with a true-blue Spaniard, getting every nuance correct relating to this star of the gastronomy galaxy is essential. And lesson one is its intonation. The recipes and ingredients may patiently await their turn.

Paella has interesting history, its origins lying in the food preferences of the Moors who repeatedly conquered Spain between AD 711 and 1492. Their typical dish was a combination of rice, meats, vegetables and spices cooked in broth (which in turn was supposedly an Arabic/Persian influence and closer home the biryani and pulao are said to have come across those shores). The rice-based hot-pot was usually prepared at family feasts or religious celebrations and shared by the community, a feature that’s still common in the Islamic world. The paella was born out of these influences. Around the 18th century it began being savoured as a stand-alone celebratory fare in the Valencia region, at places replacing the barbeque as an outdoorsy treat, and evolved to its present-day form by the mid-19th century. Steadily its aromas spread across Spain acquiring a tag for itself on the way as the national dish, tad inaccurately though, as it primarily remains proudly Valencian, prepared and served with flourish at its bistros and restaurants. Paella is their top souvenir too, its image being visible on fridge magnets, aprons, diaries, broaches and much more. 

Quite stereotypically it’s said the Spanish love siesta and fiesta and everything else fits in between. If this is another way of saying they enjoy the good life, that’s true, as my Spain tour showed. Weekdays were workdays, just as the weekends were strictly not that! I was in Valencia on a Sunday, when city commerce tightly downs its shutters and the crowds are out sunning on the popular Playa (beach) de Las Arenas, cruising down the Mediterranean, happily filling open-air cafes, or among other sites exploring the superb Bioparc—Europe’s only new generation animal habitat, certainly not to be skipped during a visit.

It’s also a custom-made day to enjoy Spain’s famously-long lunches (a several course affair between 2 pm - 4 pm). And nothing could have been more apt than an extended session at the beach-front La Marcelina, digging into the traditional ‘Paella Valenciana’, consisting of bomba rice (incidentally, rice as an everyday grain was introduced by the Moors to the Iberian Peninsula), rabbit, chicken, snails, vegetables—white lima beans and green beans or bachoqueta are a constant—tomatoes and saffron. Today there are as many versions of paella as there are cooks and its ingredients can include seafood, pork, meat, duck etc but these are given a thumbs-down by the connoisseur. I settled for a veggie adaptation which was deliciously robust even as it was delicately flavoursome. My group of fellow travellers definitely enjoyed their genuine-as-it-gets fare making correct noises about succulent rabbit meat, spice-infused chicken and crisp-tender snails.
Just as every home in India worth its garam masala has a secret recipe, every Spanish home will lay claim to preparing the most authentic paella. It requires painstaking labour, being cooked fresh and on an open fire. So as elsewhere in the world, Spaniards have increasingly begun going out for a paella meal and classic restaurants make sure they serve it suave.    

As I realised, savouring the paella is merely a part of the experience. The joy lies in the element of passion accompanying every step. In fact the entire process, from preparation to presentation, is akin to a faultless theatre production. There are the backstage boys — the master chef and his team, them being more like the king and his trusted aides; the supporting cast — steward, maitre d', front-end  manager; the various acts — the multiple courses which include sangria/red wine and rounds of appetizers; and of course the protagonist of the plot — paella.

At conventional places as La Marcelina, the paella is brought to the table in the paellera (wok-like, albeit flat with shallow sloping sides and large, the dimension going up to 3 ft) itself and displayed almost vertically  — a mark of perfection — to guests garnering much applause and appreciation. Individual portions are subsequently placed on platters and served with a wedge of the all-important lemon. At homes there’s a scramble for the toasted rice (the khurchan as we know it) lining the bottom of the pan, and considered an essential of good paella. The restaurants make sure they distribute the khurchan unbiased! Spanish restaurants are buzzing places to be in and a paella meal makes the occasion more celebratory; a must-experience when visiting the country, especially Valencia.  

A question I was frequently posed on my return was if the paella could measure up to a biryani. My plea is don’t even venture into the apples to oranges debate. Besides, it’s sacrilege to compare anything prepared with a certain long-grain, divinely-fragrant rice called basmati.  

Best paella restaurants in Valencia (as recommended by locals) 

La Marcelina                                             
Neptune Avenue 8, 
Playa de Las Arenas (beachfront)
Neptune Avenue 6, Playa de Las Arenas
Palace Fesol
Calle (or street) Hernan Cortes 7, (City Centre)
El Rall
Calle Tundidores 2, (City Centre)
Restaurant Nou Raco 
Carretera (or road) Palmar 21,
Inside Albufera Park
Restaurant Mateu
Calle BaldovĂ­ 17,
El Palmar, Albufera

Quick Facts
Best time: June to September
City sights:Plaza de la Reina, part of the historic City Centre, that has El Micalet, the landmark octagonal bell-tower, and the Valencia Cathedral purportedly housing the Holy Grail; Plaza de Toros; Central Market, amongst Europe's biggest enclosed food trade space; La Lonja, a Unesco world heritage site; Bioparc Valencia; and City of Arts and Sciences  
Getting there:
Air: International carriers fly into Valencia. From India flights have stopovers at European hubs of Milan, Zurich etc
Train: Valencia has direct connections with Barcelona and Madrid. The train from/to Madrid takes about 1.30 hrs and the journey is on the new, high-speed AVE train network. Purchasing a Eurail ( country/inter-country pass is a practical option.  
Accommodation: Hotel Sercotel Sorolla Palace, Avenida de las Cortes Valencianas 58,
Hotel Westin, Amadeo de Saboya 16,

Published in JetWings International, June 2011 

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