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Tracing the origins of paella in Valencia

Tracing the origins of paella in Valencia
Spain has a reputation for the most avant-garde cuisine in Europe, but in Valencia, William Leigh is drawn by the most traditional dish of them all.
Valencia. Warm, with a hazy heat, subtle, unexplored and beautiful. It’s an engaging city, at once modern and ancient, with contrasting styles and moods. Its people are vivacious, open and friendly. Conversations in cafés start easily, locals and travellers swap stories of their favourite parts of the city and, as is typical in a country with such a great food heritage, where to eat the best of the best.

Tapas, although possibly Spain’s most noted contribution to food culture, is not the order of the day in Valencia. That honour goes to paella, the rice-based dish that is a weekend lunchtime favourite. Valencians never eat rice at night, claiming the dish too heavy. In much the same vein as a British roast dinner, Indian dhal or Jewish chicken soup, every family lays claim to the best paella, and to the much disputed original recipe.

Some claim that seafood makes the traditional paella, while others insist it must consist of rabbit, chicken and snails. Still more will claim the dish was originally invented as an all-in-one affair designed to use up any leftovers. It is generally accepted that no great chef created the dish, but rather it was an invention of necessity by resourceful housewives.

If you spend a weekend in Valencia you could find umpteen versions of this traditional dish; during a few days we tried not one but four efforts, each with their own merits. It was a real treat to have a rabbit version cooked in front of us, with different native beans, like ferradura and garrofon, studded with artichokes and flavoured gently with sprigs of delicate, young rosemary.

Despite all the variation, there is one constant; the presence of the stubby, fat,
Tracing the origins of paella in Valencia
pearl-shaped grains of bomba, the traditional Valencian rice. Brought to the city by Arab traders (Valencia was once a huge centre of shipping and commerce), it has now become an intrinsic part of the cuisine here. Ask any Valencian and they will tell you in no uncertain terms the city is famous for its rice dishes.

Bomba is key to a successful paella, the grains plumping and perfectly absorbing flavour while staying firm. It now boasts the sought after title of Denominacion de Origen, the equivalent of the French Appellation Contrôlée, which guarantees consistency and geographical provenance. This is due in part to the fixed size of the rice fields. Local farmers had encroached on a lake 10km outside the city, covering great tracts of it with earth. The El Saler lake had been so damaged the government had to step in to prevent further loss; it is now a tenth of its original size and a nature reserve, host to a wide variety of marine and bird life.

The rice is grown on these limited plots and is harvested each year in late August or early September. It is ready, said a local, when the green shoots have turned brown and dried over the scorching summer months. These shoots are burnt by the farmers and the smoke that wafts over and envelopes the city is the signal that the new season’s rice has arrived.

To experience a true family-style meal in Valencia, head down to the beach on a Saturday lunchtime. The La Marcelina Restaurant, located in front of Las Arenas beach, is a buzzy, vibrant place perfect for large groups, as evidenced by the tables of 30 or more extended Spanish families there. Their paella is cooked to order (a must according to paella connoisseurs), so while away the time as it cooks with their other house favourites of calamar, (deep fried squid) pescadito frito (battered white bait) and chopito (baby squid). The place was packed to the rafters on our visit. Worth a peek is the cavernous kitchen visible from the road; it is filled with clanging paella pans and chefs ducking out of one another’s path while rice bubbles on hobs.

La Marcelina Restaurant, Paseo de Neptuno 8, Playa de Levante, 46011, Valencia, Spain
Tel: +34 96 372 33 16
For more information on restaurants and where to eat in Valencia visit
Tracing the origins of paella in Valencia
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23 May 2011
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