There is only one meal that makes a trip to Spain complete: paella. As far as the British are concerned, this mixture of rice, chicken and seafood with the odd bit of veg thrown in is Spains national dish. But in a land where regional gastronomy is taken very seriously, Spaniards wring their hands at this notion. For true paella comes from Valencia everything else is just rice.
Ive had lousy paella in a romantic beach-side restaurant near Almeria. One of the best was a take-away proper pan and all from Pedros in Jávea, consumed in splendid privacy on our villa balcony at sunset. But paella is by no means a fast food. It takes a minimum of 30 minutes to cook one properly. Given the popularity of this dish I went to Valencia to find out the secret of good paella.
About 12 kilometres south of Valencia, Spains third-largest city, is La Albufera, a freshwater lake which is now part of a national park. Here, at the end of the 7th century, the Moors introduced irrigation to cultivate Spains first rice paddies. Today they cover a vast area of this coastal plain, stretching 35 kilometres south of the city.
This is the area where paella was born, said my guide Juan Llantada. When the farmers stopped working the fields for their midday meal, they added whatever they had to the rice rabbit, duck, snails and green beans. That is the original paella.
The dish spread from there. On the coast, they added seafood. Inland, they used meatballs. Today there are more than 300 varieties of paella which is actually the name of the broad, shallow pan in which it is cooked. (And by the way, there is no el in paella the double l in Spanish is pronounced like a y, so the proper pronunciation is pah-áy-yah.) Only the original is true paella. The others are simply called arroz (rice), although they are cooked the same way.
Rice is very important to people in this region, he said. We have it almost every day, so our experience tells us what is or is not a good paella.
The rice is the key. It acts as a flavour conductor to transfer the taste of the other ingredients to the mouth. Only short-grained rice is suitable for paella. Eight types of rice are grown in Valencia, but bomba, the most absorbent, is highly prized.
You dont have to add a lot of meat or seafood, Juan explained. Just the right amount of oil, meat, rice and water. The purpose is to get the taste. The rice absorbs all the flavour from the pan.
The Spanish eat paella at lunchtime, never at night. In the country it is cooked outdoors over a wood fire, particularly on Sunday afternoons for family gatherings. And, like our barbecues, the men take over the cooking.
Smoke is another ingredient, Juan said. It gives the rice a lot of flavour. That is why we prefer the wood fire.
Set among the rice fields is El Palmar, home of the rice farmers, which becomes an island when the paddies are flooded. As we drive over three narrow bridges to reach it, I have a fine view of the irrigation ditches and small vegetable plots that surround the farmhouses. At weekends Valencianos flock to the village to eat paella in the farmers restaurants, made with their own produce.
But you dont have to go to the country to find good paella. We head back into the old quarter of Valencia, to La Riua, a charming family-run paella restaurant that is a local favourite. A small room at the back of the kitchen has six large gas ring burners and paellas of various sizes on the go. I squeezed in to watch owner Pilar Lozano cook a traditional paella.
She put oil in the pan and stirred in finely ground saffron, salt and red pepper. When the oil was hot she added a few pieces of chicken and rabbit on the bone, letting them brown slowly. Next comes chopped garlic and grated tomato pulp, then a few flat green beans and plump white lima beans, called garrafon. After adding two deep ladles of stock, she turned up the fire. Finally, when it was bubbling furiously, she poured a row of bomba rice down the middle and spread it evenly over the pan.
Once youve spread out the rice, you never stir it again until the paella is finished, Juan explained. You let it simmer for 18 minutes, until all the stock is absorbed, then leave it for five minutes to rest before serving.
This is another secret to good paella. Some restaurants try to speed things up by finishing the paella in the oven, but the traditional way is to let it absorb the water naturally on the fire. It was worth the wait and all the more delicious for knowing that this was paella cooked as it was meant to be.
The following day I took the train south to Alicante, also part of the Valencia region, but with its own provincial rice specialities. La Darsena restaurant overlooks the marina, resembling a ship itself with its curved sides and large round windows. Here it became obvious that paella is only the shopfront window as far as rice is concerned.
La Darsena has 147 rice dishes on its menu. Dry rice, moist rice, rice with seafood, meat, game, vegetables, legumes and endless combinations of the above but most all of them are cooked exactly like paella.
After gorgeous starters of large red prawn and spiny lobster, we tucked into arroz negro, or black rice. Squid ink gives it the colour, and this one was laced with the tastiest octopus Ive ever eaten. The perfect paella, then, can come in many guises.
For my final paella I headed to Alicantes old quarter and the highly rated Nou Manolín. Downstairs its an old-style tapas bar, with hams hanging from the ceiling and a boisterous crowd of locals knocking back good local wines and tapas.
In the upstairs restaurant Cesar, the chef, cooked me an outstanding seafood paella made with prawns, clams, calamari and tiny sweet beans the size of green chillis. With his youthful good looks and enthusiasm, he could be the Jamie Oliver of Alicante. As he showed me round his kitchen, pointing out the glistening fresh seafood and meats, and the special, round dark-red peppers used in paella, I concluded that the final secret is the ingredients only top quality produce makes a good paella and the pride of cooking paella the traditional way.
Whats the best way to find a good paella this summer? Ask a local.