If you look closely enough, you will find the entire history of Spain within the perimeter of a paella pan. Olive oil, the golden film that forms the base of every paella, adding depth and a gentle sheen to the bed of grains, is the story of a hungry ancient Rome expanding its empire across Iberia, one olive tree at a time. Tomato, the heart of the sofrito that lends colour and a savoury-sweet baseline to a proper paella, is the story of Spain’s own vision of empire and conquest, and the unexpected treasures it pillaged from the New World. And the heart of paella – the rice, saffron and vegetables that fill out the pan – speaks of 700 years of Moorish rule leaving a footprint on the Iberian peninsula; one that informs how Spain eats, drinks and lives to this day.
When the Berbers of north Africa made their way up through Andalucía and into the Valencia area during the eighth century, they found a flat coastal land rich with fresh water from the rivers and lagoons that cut through the plains like veins and arteries. They called the area the Albufera, little sea – green and wet and spotted white with ocean birds, a breeding ground for a new culture in Spain and the rest of Europe. Within years of the Moors’ arrival, the wetlands were converted into rice paddies used to feed the growing Iberian extension of the Moorish empire. Thirteen hundred years later, massive grain silos stand tall like watchtowers over the Valencia flats, fuelling one of the world’s most enduring and extraordinary rice cultures.
Paella wasn’t the result of a singular creation from an inspired cook, but a slow evolution of necessity and adaptation, a convergence of land and history and circumstance. References to rice a la valenciana can be found as early as the 17th century, but the paella itself, the wide, shallow pan fundamental to the dish’s creation, doesn’t surface until the end of the 19th century. With it came what we now recognise as the world’s most famous rice dish.
The dimensions of the dish are rooted in the ground itself, the Valencian rice and orange fields where farmers and day labourers sought sustenance as they worked the earth. Paella evolved as a reflection of their immediate surroundings: legumes and tomatoes from the gardens, snails clinging to the wild rosemary and thyme bushes wet with rain, duck and rabbit from the marshes of the Albufera, all cooked over wood cut from the surrounding citrus groves.
The cooking vessel, called the paella (Valencian for pan), made perfect tactical sense: ample enough to fit protein and vegetables to energise the hungry workforce, shallow and open to allow for quick cooking and rapid water evaporation, and built to double as both the cooking and serving vessel, a single metal plate where workers could gather around to feast. Slowly, it migrated from the fields and marshes into kitchens and backyards across the region.
But then something dramatic happened: Spain stopped being a bubble and started being a tourist destination. Franco died in 1975, and most of the country rejoiced at the end of 36 years of hard-fisted dictatorship, a protracted coming out party that culminated in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Somewhere along the way, through a mixture of coordinated effort on the part of the Spanish tourism board and savvy entrepreneurship from restaurant owners the country over, paella was catapulted to international fame – right there next to sangria, flamenco and other hallmarks of Spain’s global image. Suddenly, paella wasn’t a dish made on Sundays in homes around Valencia, but a national icon, something that anyone travelling to Spain expected to find wherever they turned. You know how the story goes: the dish was diluted, misinterpreted, bastardised and butchered. Paella got punked. And even now, 40 years later, that industry shows no signs of slowing down.
For years in Spain, I was the guy eating bad paella. My first came on the Passeig de Gràcia in 1999 with my high school Spanish class, a pan of rice as yellow and wet as a banana slug. Subsequent paellas proved every bit as problematic. Even my efforts to eat at the places with awards and reputations were rewarded with mediocre meals. Nothing I came across offered even the slightest suggestion of how paella came to be Spain’s culinary calling card to the world.
Confused and disappointed, I swore off paella entirely, convinced that any further investigation could begin to have collateral damage, compromising my faith in the entirety of Spanish cuisine. I imagined that somewhere out there, people were eating versions of this dish that justified its fame, but real paella culture was like a secret society whose password I would never know.
While I walked blindly through the valleys of paella disappointment, a few brave souls were at work on righting the wrongs of the Spanish rice world. In 2013, a group of proud Valencians with a deep love for their region’s cuisine founded Wikipaella as a way for a community of rice lovers to preserve a fundamental component of their culinary heritage. It was formed around the idea that it’s not the tourist who suffers most the slings of un-realised rice potential, but the Valencians themselves, who have watched for years as the world perpetrated crimes on their most sacred staple. The mission was to protect what’s served. A 10-point manifesto on the site lays out the fundamental beliefs that unite this cabal of writers, chefs and enthusiasts. A few of the highlights: authentic paella has its origin in the Comunidad Valenciana; we publicly denounce transgressions committed against paella, especially in the Comunidad Valenciana; we carry paella in our hearts and travel with it as far as possible.
Jose Manuel Garcerá and José Maza form a core part of Team Wikipaella, eager lieutenants on the frontline of the rice wars. “We realise the lack of understanding is as much our fault as anyone’s,” says Garcerá. “We can’t even come to an agreement ourselves what constitutes real paella, so how can we expect the rest of the world to? In a radius of 60km, you’ll find four very distinct paellas. Someone might say: ‘I’m sorry, that’s not a paella.’ What the hell are you talking about? That’s how my grandpa always made it.”
With all of this static surrounding a single dish, they decided to solve the question of what is paella in the most democratic way possible: let the people who make it most define it. They conducted interviews with 200 restaurants from Valencia, Castellón and Alicante, and created a database that offers a statistical breakdown of ingredients. Go on the site and you’ll find that 100% of cooks use olive oil, rabbit, chicken, garrafó and judía ferradura (large white beans and wide green beans – local legumes that comprise the central vegetable base of a true paella); 82% use smoked paprika, and 74% use mountain snails. Garlic (52%) and rosemary (55%) are the most divisive paella ingredients, while artichokes (10%) and pork ribs (7%) are the biggest outliers.
The map feature allows you to search for restaurants based on the ingredients they use, and – most impressively – to narrow in on the small handful of restaurants out there still cooking rice the traditional way – over wood fires. For those who would rather do the cooking themselves, Wikipaella also offers slick video instruction from the biggest paella players of the region.
Wikipaella caught on quickly, with restaurants and serious home cooks joining the fight against the sinister forces of the rice world; financial support came from La Fallera, the largest producer of rice in Valencia, as well as the Valencian government. “They recognise that paella isn’t just a plate of food – it has an economic and cultural value well beyond mere sustenance.”
To stand idly by while millions eat lacklustre paellas is to miss an opportunity to spread a true piece of their culture to the rest of the world.
Maza admits that there’s an inherent tension between a culture born in the fields and family kitchens and the restaurant industry that has developed around it. “For me, the perfect paella is my mum’s,” he says. “Almost any valenciano is going to tell you the same. But there are plenty of restaurants who do it well – and from a technical standpoint, probably better than most of our mothers.”
I don’t have a Valencian mother. Nor do you, nor do 34 million Spaniards. We need to have our breakthroughs wherever we can. It was at one of Wikipaella’s favourite restaurants where I finally had mine.
On a long drive back to Barcelona from Andalucía, almost the entire length of Spain, we made an unintentional detour through Benissanó, a small, unremarkable town about 30 minutes outside the city of Valencia. Soon, I was upstairs in the kitchen of Restaurante Levante, watching a long line of paella pans bubbling away over burning branches of orange wood. Rafael Vidal, the owner and chef at Restaurante Levante, is paella royalty – his father famously served rice to the king and queen of Spain back in 1977. Since then, Levante has taken its paella game very seriously: growing its own vegetables in a garden next door, trucking in orange wood from nearby groves, cooking paellas the way they’ve always been cooked.
Upstairs, at Rafael’s side, I watched what I would come to learn as the infallible method of paella valenciana, scribbling notes furiously in a saffron-stained notebook that I still keep as my road map: rabbit + chicken deeply browned, then veg… tomato cooked until it clings like mud to the veg … pinch of saffron, shake of pimenton. Simple but complex, easy but … impossible?
What arrived on the table was like nothing I had seen or tasted before, destined to be the benchmark by which I would judge all rice to come.
A perfect paella is comprised of a thin layer of rice, no deeper than a pinky, the colour of rusted gold. Meat – chicken, rabbit, snails, the traditional trilogy – should be dark brown and on the bone, chopped in pieces two bites big. Stars of the Valencian garden, fat white beans and fat green beans, should hide everywhere in the folds of the rice – like the protein, supporting actors in a larger drama. Rice is the star of this story, its entire place in paella a paradox: toothsome yet tender, independent but inexorably bound to the larger whole, swollen with the flavour of everything that came before it in the pan. At the base of the pan, scattered in irregular pockets, you’ll find the socarrat, the crispy, caramelised grains that drive rice-ends wild with desire.
It’s one thing for a naive American to lose it over a few spoons of socarrat, but I wasn’t the only one at the table having a rice revelation. My wife and her sister, born and bred on la cocina española, were having their own transformational moment: “I feel like I’ve never tasted paella before.”
That was it. This lunch was a gateway drug, the first hit in what has become an increasingly desperate addiction to saffron and socarrat.
Twists on the classic paella, and where to try them
Conejo y caracoles
A staple found in the mountainous interior of Alicante, where rabbit and snails are abundant. When done right, it’s one of the finest rice creations in Spain – or anywhere.
Where to eat Paco Gandía, Pinoso (+34 965 478 023, no website); Racó del Pla, Alicante
Arroz a Banda
A fisherman’s creation eaten along the Valencia coast. Made by first creating a fragrant stock from small rockfish, then cooking it with rice and various forms of seafood. It’s often served with allioli, a garlic and olive oil emulsion.
Where to eat Casa Carmela, Valencia; El Faralló, Dénia
Arroz del Autor
Fancy rice dishes served in small portions at Spain’s high-end restaurants. Distinguished by intense stocks and esoteric proteins – pigeon, sea cucumber.
Where to eat Quique Dacosta, Dénia; Dos Cielos, Barcelona
Arroz al Horno
An oven-baked porcine party of the highest order, combining blood sausage, pork belly, pork ribs, and the leftover stock from puchero, a classic Valencia stew.
Where to eat La Abuela, Xàtiva
Tinted black with squid ink and studded with sundry cephalopods and crustaceans … expect a moist, almost risotto-like texture with an undercurrent of iron and ocean.
Where to eat Las Bairetas, Valencia
Literally, brothy rice. Arroz con bogavante (lobster) is the king of the caldosos, but you’ll also find it made with crab, shrimp, clams and even meat.
Where to eat Casa el Famós, Valencia; Compartir, Cadaqués
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