Valencians have the confident belief, to me it seems well-founded, that nobody knows how to cook rice better than them…No one finds it strange that the Valencians have arrived to this level of perfection, unknown in the other provinces, for it is the food with which they sustain themselves almost exclusively, particularly the people with few resources who, for this reason, have studied the methods to make it more palatable. Everywhere people want to imitate the Valencians, and for this they usually leave their rice half-cooked, wrongly calling it Valencian rice, persuaded that they eat their rice almost raw, having observed that the cooked grains remain whole and separate in Valencian stews.”
-Francisco de Paula Martí, 1513
All paellas are rices, but not all rices are paellas.
-Doña María Vanaclocha
In their best moments, Spaniards are the most skilled rice cooks on the planet, capable of teasing from a simple starch untold depths of flavor and texture, from soupy rice slicked with lobster essence to moist, creamy rice studded with wild mushrooms and morsels of duck to the al dente ideal of a perfect paella. Paella, of course, is Spain’s national dish, and most would say the purest example of the Spaniards’ talent with grains. But if a decade of trial and error has taught me anything, it’s that very few people know how to cook paella in this country.
I ate my first paella at 18, a plate of rice wet and yellow as a banana slug, washed down with a goblet of sangria on Barcelona’s opulent Passeig de Gracia. Later there was the seafood paella of my 21st birthday, lit by candle, prepared by an old man with a heart of first-press olive oil, served not more than a few steps from the lapping Mediterranean. More recently, there was the smoked paella of Kaiku, a celebrated rice den at the tip of Barceloneta, and the shrimp- and squid-studded rice from Taberna del Gourmet in Alicante, a port town near Valencia famous for its rice tradition. After all of this, to the chagrin of every Spaniard I know, I could say without a shred of contrarian angst that the best paella of my life came not from the shores of Spain, but from a place called Socarrat in New York.
To be sure, I am not the only one who has had paella problems. Francisco de Paula Martí, one of the early chroniclers of Spanish gastronomy, saw it coming 500 years ago. Josep Pla, the great Catalan novelist and journalist, reiterated his concern in an essay when he called paella “one of the most perverted, humiliated dishes of the national cuisine.”
So when did Spain forget how to cook paella?
The problem is most of Spain never knew in the first place. This is what happens when you try to foist upon a country a single unifying dish, especially in a country like this one, where half the regions would rather have nothing at all to do with Spain the unified nation. But since paella is the one food that every tourist landing on the Iberian Peninsula comes looking for, restaurants from A Coruña to Zaragosa are all too happy to serve it up, even if they’re regions removed from the historic cradle of paella.
Paella comes from the Valencia region, where the dish’s two most vital ingredients grow: rice and saffron. Both ingredients came to Spain through the 700-year Arabic occupation of Andalusia. Not long after the Moors were cast from the garden by the Catholics in the 15th century, records began to surface of farmers in the fields outside Valencia cooking large pans of rice, vegetables and meat over open flames. In the centuries to follow, those hodgepodge pans came into focus, first in what is considered the official paella valenciana, a mixture of chicken, rabbit and variety of legumes, with snails and duck as optional constituents. Later, as the pans of rice moved toward the coast, the paella de mariscos developed, incorporating all manners of aquatic life, but most commonly shrimp, mussels and squid.
Seems simple enough, but starting in the Franco years, with the dust from the Spanish Civil War finally settled, tourists washed on to the shores of Spain looking to eat and drink the Mediterranean way—and paella entered into a dark age. It started innocently enough with the mixing of shellfish and meat—after all, the Spaniards are masters of the surf-and-turf treatment and paella mixta seemed like a natural extension of the paella ethos. But then came wedges of bell peppers and hunks of chorizo, broccoli florets and frozen green peas. Soon, turmeric or artificial coloring took the place of expensive saffron as a wave of cheaper, streamlined, school bus-yellow paellas made their way to the tourist thoroughfares around the country.
That brings us to today, where the biggest producer of paella in Spain is a mysterious purveyor called Paellador. Their signs can be spotted at restaurants, bars and cafes the country over: perfectly composed, kaleidoscopically colorful pans of paella, offered in six exciting iterations. What those signs, and the restaurants using them, fail to convey is that Paellador is a food conglomerate whose other specialties include frozen pasta carbonara, tuna pizza, and an awe-inspiring creation called fideguay, a mixture of short noodles tossed with hot dogs, bacon and ham and blanketed in melted cheese. Chances are, if you’re eating a paella in a restaurant on La Rambla in Barcelona or near the ocean in Valencia or by El Prado in Madrid, it wasn’t prepared over a wood fire by an old man whose been simmering paellas for decades; it came off the Paelldor assembly line, only to be reheated and served inside a lovely paella pan for 20€ a person.