True Paella Valenciana

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.

5 paellas

Clockwise from top: valenciana, vegetarian, seafood, fideuà, and black (center)

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.  

Paella Pans.jpg

Paella Pans

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.

Snails

Snails trying to escape the paella pan

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.

Saffron vendor

Under the watchful eye of the saffron salesman

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.

Albufera Eel Traps

Eel traps on the Albufera lagoon

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.

Albufera Boat in canal

Cruising the canals of the Albufera lagoon

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.

Albufera rice fields

Rice fields lying fallow

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.

Paella on Fire

Traditional paella valenciana cooking over an open wood fire

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.

Paella After

The Aftermath

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.

Albufera sunset

Sunset on the Albufera

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.

 

19 thoughts on “True Paella Valenciana

  1. Don’t you love that Central Market in Valencia? We do exactly what you do… a month in each city. Valencia was a favorite of ours also. Have fun in the south of Spain.

    Thanks for your great blog… Lance

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by, Lance. It is great to hear from a fellow month-in-each-city traveler. I would love to hear where you have been and how you are getting along. Hope we can stay in touch. Happy and safe travels, Joe

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  2. Joe, you really pulled all the stops here to get the real deal. I didn’t know much about the history behind this delicious traditional dish. The toasted rice from the bottom of the pan is indeed the best bit. I seriously considered buying a paella pan, but in the end I felt that I would never be able to cook this traditional dish well enough to do it justice. I hope you and Esther will have a great time in Cadiz, I will be looking forward to hearing about it 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know you could make a mean paella, Gilda. I watched a couple Youtube videos, and it doesn’t look that hard. Since I don’t want to lug a huge pan around, I think I will buy one on Amazon when I get home. I’m sure it will take several attempts to get the bottom bits just right. Good thing I am not a picky eater. We made it to Cádiz yesterday, and went on a day trip to Ronda today. It looks like it will be another great month. Hope all is well with you, Brian, and your new motorhome.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m embarrassed to say that the first time I heard of paella was on the “Jerry Seinfeld Show” when George’s mother was making it. But (as long as I go for a version without snails or rabbits) it sounds delicious! I do love risotto, which is a little similar. Thanks for this post…it was so interesting to learn more about the origins of this dish. And when I do finally get to try it, I’m going to make sure I taste the crispy bits at the bottom of the pan!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had to look that episode up, Ann. It’s been too long since I watched Seinfeld. I love the part where Kramer describes paella as an “orgiastic feast for the senses”. It is tasty, but I don’t know if I would go that far. I love risotto too. I think you could call it paella’s smooth and creamy Italian cousin, without the crispy bottom bits.

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  4. A really interesting post, Joe. I’ve always thought myself somewhat daring when it came to seafood, but I’m not sure about eel or snails. So I’m probably safer with the meat versions of paella. But served from the bottom up! – Marty

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    • I’m right there with you, Marty. I have eaten both snails and eels, and they really don’t do much for me. The snails in the paella were quite rubbery and surprisingly tasteless. The rice is really the star of the paella show. The Bomba rice really absorbs a lot of liquid including the saffron and other spices in the broth. The paella cooked over the wood fire was especially tasty, as it took on a decidedly smoky flavor, and produced a nice crispy bottom layer (socarrat). All the best, Joe

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  5. I admit I never tasted eel or marsh rat, but I’m not sure I’d try it even for a paella. And I would consider a fraudulent paella (chicken, andouille sausage, and shrimp?). But then the Italians would likely already curse me for too much sauce with my pasta, so why not add the Spanish? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I discovered that there are an infinite number of ways to prepare paella, Dave. In a way, its kind of like pizza, where you can put any combination of your favorite toppings into it. I think your version sounds very tasty. I don’t think you would make any enemies by ordering a paella with both meat and seafood, but the purists from Valencia might roll there eyes in your direction.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This made me hungry. Heck, even your empty skillet makes me hungry.
    I had no idea it was originally a peasant dish, though makes sense when you think about it. It was a clever way of using up all the leftovers. 🙂

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    • Good point, Christi. I think that locals make paella to use up their leftovers and scraps of uncooked produce and meats. I suppose every culture has a dish that accommodates these odds and ends. I think the Chinese with their chop suey and fired rice dishes perfected this practice. My favorite way at home is to make stir-fry on a bed of jasmine rice. After all this high-carb Spanish food, that is sounding pretty good right now.

      Liked by 1 person

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