I know it’s a cliché writing about a dish that is known worldwide and stereotypical and emblematic of Spain on my blog, but there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. It’s something many Brits would typically do, go down to La Rambla in the centre of Barcelona and have a massive, watered-down glass of sangria, and have a rather plastic- looking plate of paella and feel like they’re living the Spanish dream. Seriously mate, dream on. If you want a paella, do it right, and your wallet and taste buds will thank you for it.
Paella is typical of Valencia, and they love telling you about it, and every paella tried outside of their community is often compared to their own. There have even been other articles posted, stating that you need water from Valencia to make the perfect paella, a theory proven wrong on a program called El Punto de Mira. Brits also may assume that this famous dish is eaten everywhere in Spain, but couldn’t be further from the truth. The further inland and northwest you go in Spain, the less likely you are to see them.
Another common misconception is that Paella is primarily a seafood dish, loaded with king prawns, calamari and mussels. That is a common version, but the authentic version, the valenciana, has no seafood in it at all. Chicken, rabbit, butter beans, runner beans, and optionally duck and snails are the main components to go with the rice. Other regions have their varieties, and they are worth trying, but this is considered the authentic one.
Another key thing to think about, is the way it’s prepared. Paella is cooked on an open fire, and that really does make a difference. You don’t get the same charred taste like that of putting meat on a grill, but the aroma from the wood does get infused in the rice and gives it a different flavour. Saffron also must be used, expensive though it is, and some restaurants either don’t use enough, or cut corners by substituting it so it gets it’s iconic colour. Still prefer that plastic rubbish from that tourist trap you visited the other day?
The preference to how a paella is finished off has divided the nation. Do you prefer the rice to be caldoso or seco? That question is like asking a Brit if they prefer ketchup or brown sauce with their bacon sandwich. Caldoso means soupy, that the rice has a lot of water in it but like a thick sauce whereas seco means dry. The moisture from the paella has mostly gone, but is replaced by an intense flavour especially from the socorrat, the layer of rice that’s roasted at the bottom of the pan, and the best bit in my opinion. I personally love both kinds, but I think the seco version just edges it.
The varieties of this world-famous dish are endless, and I would try as many different kinds as possible. Other notable kinds include ones with lobster, with black rice, vegetable or get the best of both worlds, with the mixta. One ingredient you should never find is chorizo. Jamie Oliver received a huge backlash here in Spain after adding some in his recipe, and rightly so.
A paella might seem quite expensive, but usually they cost around 10€ per person, depending on the quality and location as well as the number of people who are eating it. The more people, the cheaper it gets, so sharing is caring everyone. Also just be aware that a good sign that your Paella is going to be from scratch, is when they take at least 20 mins for it to arrive after you order it. Waiters would normally warn you of how long it takes if you don’t order any starter or dish to share, so a good suggestion, would be something light, like a salad or some sardines. One more thing to take into account, is that many bars and restaurants will have a tacky poster, advertising that they are specialists with paellas with pictures of their varieties. I would generally avoid those places as they usually aren’t great.
To sum up, paellas are an amazing way to give the weekend a huge lift. The varieties are endless, they are perfect for sharing, and they have the most amazing presentation. However, it’s very easy to end up in a tourist trap, eating that fluorescent yellow rice. When you find a place that does it right, you’re on cloud nine, and my advise, is to go to where it all started, Valencia for the paella valenciana. They really are the most authentic, for the most part, the best and they know they are, so they are eager to take care of you. See for yourself.