Paella Valenciana – The Original Paella, Not a Prawn in Sight…

Paella Valenciana

Paella Valenciana, L'Establiment, El Palmar nr Valencia

Most of us are familiar with the seafood or mixed paella served at tourists spots across Spain, but the original Valencia Paella is a far cry from these modern interpretations.

The paella that most of us are familiar with (and is served in tourist spots across Spain) consists either of a seafood paella or a ‘mixed paella’; bright yellow rice with pink prawns and mussel shells strewn across the surface of the rice, and perhaps the odd lemon segment mysteriously nestling amongst its fishy neighbours.  But the original Paella can be found in and around El Palmar, a village hidden among the rice fields south of Valencia, where the shellfish don’t get a look in…

Traditionaly cooked over orange wood fires that imparts a smokey flavour to the dish, the dish uses ingredients that could be found in the paddy fields and the canals that feed them – specifically rabbit, little stripy snails and duck (though chicken is an acceptable substitute, shown in the dish above), together with various types of beans.  This is the true definition of local sourcing –  measured in food metres, not miles!

The photo above shows a huge wagon wheel sized Paella (the name for the pan as well as the dish) from the L’Establiment on the north end of Paella.  The restaurant somehow manages to be stylish and yet unpretentious and welcoming, and if the weather is good (it wasn’t) you can sit outside by the canal and paddy fields that have provided your meal.  A good Paella is a real treat – intense rich flavours with buttery rice and a range of textures that can make sharing with your dining partners somewhat precarious (tradition says you should never cross over the invisible line into your neighbours section – fork rapped knuckles ensue).  Paella is only ever eaten at lunch in Spain – restaurants will serve it to you in the evening, but expect to be eating it on your own.

I would recommend phoning and ordering ahead (ours took an hour to cook), and remember that the Spanish lunch runs later than most – we arrived at 3pm, and people were still ordering food at 4 and eating at 5. If you can’t get to El Palmar, then look for restaurants that serve Paella for a minimum of two people – then you know it is being cooked fresh each time.

Given that this is a dish that has evolved and changed to become different dishes within its own country, I also think that we should all worry less about using traditional recipes when cooking it at home.  Look to the original spirit of the dish, and use what is in your immediate vicinity; think local game and seasonal vegetables if you’re inland, or native shellfish like oysters, mussels and langoustine if you’re by the coast.  Just ensure that you’re putting plenty of flavour into the dish, and maybe serve it to your diners on their own plates – then fork blows to the knuckles can be avoided…

Steamed Mussels in Rich Tomato and Tarragon Sauce

Mussels in Tomato and Tarragon Sauce

Fresh mussels steamed in a tomato and tarragon broth – a heavenly rich dish dotted with little explosions of sweet tarragon and sharp capers.

Sometimes the best recipes come from an empty cupboard – and this is such a recipe.  I’d been planning to make the traditional moules marinieres with white wine and shallots, however I then remembered we’d drunk the white wine the night before. Ho hum. But what I did have was tomatoes, shallots and a bottle of tarragon vinegar demanding to be used…

Ingredients

All quantities are per person for a main course sized serving.

20-30 mussels, cleaned and debearded
A knob of unsalted butter (about 15g)
1 small shallot, finely chopped
Half a tin of tomatoes, chopped
1 sprig of lemon thyme
1 bay leaf
Bunch of chopped parsley
2 tbsp tarragon vinegar*
6 capers, roughly chopped
Salt and Pepper to taste
Olive oil for dressing

1.  Rinse off the mussels and discard any that don’t close when tapped.

2. Heat the butter on a medium heat, then add the shallots and cook until they turn clear.

3. Add tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, chopped parsley and seasoning (not too much salt though as the liquid in the mussels will be fairly salty), turn up the heat.  When mixture is bubbling fiercely, add the mussels and place a lid on the pan.

4.  Shake the pan occasionally, then after a couple of minutes take off the lid and douse with tarragon vinegar.  Put the lid back on and cook for 2 more minutes, still shaking occasionally.

5. Remove the lid, and pour the mussels and liquid into a serving bowl, discarding the thyme and bay leaf.  Scatter over the chopped capers, and dress with olive oil (about 1 tbsp).

This is a simple, rewarding dish that can be made in a few minutes with little fuss.  The tarragon vinegar sneaks inside some of the mussels so that you get occasional sweet bursts, combining well with the odd smidgen of sharp capers and the rich tomato sauce.  Obviously it would be a crime not to dip big chunks of crusty bread in the sauce. People say not to eat the mussels that are still partly closed, but I always crowbar them open and I’m still living to this day.

In the picture above I included whole capers, but found it a little too intense (and they all slid away into the sauce), hence the recommendation to chop them. Also, chuck a little bit of white wine in there if you like, why not, assuming you haven’t drunk it already…

*tarragon vinegar is pretty easy to make – stick a few sprigs of fresh tarragon into a bottle of white wine vinegar, wait a few weeks, voila – tarragon vinegar.