Paella, originally a peasant meal, has become the signature dish of Valencia. In our quest to find and consume true paella valenciana, we visited the city’s Central Market to look over its ingredients, and went out to see paella’s rural birthplace on the banks of the nearby Albufera lagoon.
Paella valenciana is a slow-simmered rice dish containing beans, spices, rabbit, chicken, and sometimes snails. There are also other paellas like seafood paella, vegetarian paella, black paella made with squid ink, and even noodle paella called fideuà. If you were to mix meat and seafood; however, locals would consider your paella fraudulent and even grotesque.
The word “paella” means “pan” in the Valencian language. Paella pans of all sizes can be found for sale around Valencia’s massive Central Market. They are round, flat, made of polished steel, outfitted with two handles, do not have lids, and will not fit in my suitcase.
Walking between the vendor stalls inside the Central Market, we found all the ingredients for making paella. We saw whole skinned rabbits, slithering three-foot long freshwater eels, and live garden-variety snails trying to escape their containers.
Market vendors also sold the specific spices used to make paella, including saffron, the world’s most expensive spice. Known as “red gold”, saffron is derived from the vivid crimson stigmas of the crocus flower. Fortunately, at up to $5,000 per pound, only a few threads are needed to give paella its rich golden-yellow hue and hay-like fragrance.
After seeing the ingredients for sale, we took the bus seven miles (11 km) south of the city to the Albufera lagoon and the birthplace of paella. Here, field workers first threw together beans, rice, spices, snails, eels, and the occasional marsh rat to create the original paella valenciana.
The Albufera lagoon is Spain’s largest lake, but is only four feet (1.2 m) deep. To explore this shallow freshwater body of water, we hired a flat bottom boat and went for a cruise. We found the lagoon to be a thriving nature reserve and bird sanctuary, only separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a narrow strip of sand dunes.
We saw rice fields, lying fallow this time of year, surrounding the Albufera lagoon. Here, the almost spherical, short-grained rice called Bomba is grown to make paella. With the ability to expand like an accordion, these pearly white rice grains absorb three times their volume of water (and flavors) without bursting or becoming sticky.
On the banks of the lagoon, we found the village of El Palmar, where we happened upon an excellent restaurant serving paella valenciana as part of their set price menu. Typically, paella valenciana is cooked over a wood fire to infuse a smoky flavor, and takes about 45 minutes to prepare.
When our paella finally arrived, we served ourselves from the pan, making sure to scrape the toasted rice off the bottom. Considered a delicacy called the socarrat, this crisped layer of the paella had a slight crunch and an intensity of flavor. With the pan scraped clean, we sat back with satisfaction, realizing that we had just found and devoured true paella valenciana.
Blogger’s Note: Sadly, our month of March in Valencia has come to an end. Happily, tomorrow, we are moving on to Cadíz, Spain for the month of April.