So, here we are, embarking on a new foodie quest to make our way through ‘all’ of Spanish tapas. Some dishes will be famous, some will be familiar and some will make you scratch your head in wonder that the good people of Spain actually eat said item. Goose barnacles? Brains? Testicles? Bean stew?
But, before we get stuck into the delicious depths of Iberia’s finest we shall start with our overture, our gastronomic singalong. A dish so famous that it has become the country’s food landmark. If the UK is fish and chips, France is cheese, Russia is borscht, the US hamburgers, Germany sausages then Spain most definitely is paella.
But what actually is it? Isn’t it that yellow rice bescattered with prawns, calamari rings and a few open mussels, served with hand-rubbing glee by the waiters on the Costas? Well, sort of and no.
Paella is not a Spanish dish inherently. Spain is a historically woven-together tapestry of regions, 15 on the mainland, and each has their own dishes. Paella, and rice in general, finds its home in the flat marine marshes and golden-beach community of Valencia in the far east.
The Arabs, good on them, introduced rice in a big cultivated way to Valencia in the 8th century (we can also thank them for marketing saffron: the spice used in paella. Francisco de Paula Martí Mola  said ‘The Valencians have the vanity, and to me it seems well founded, to say that nobody has managed to learn how to season as well as they have‘). Through a long planted history, rice has spread throughout the length of the east coast from Catalonia in the north to Murcia in the south. It became a staple of that region, planted in the brackish flats around the Albufera lake and the nearby villages. It was Spain’s answer to Italy’s pasta. Poverty food. What do we have? Let’s throw it in the pan.
Then, after a long history of snacking , boom tourism occurred in the 60s and paella became the superstar dish as the pasty Brits and Germans and the rest flocked to the sun-drenched beaches on the coast as fell in love with this colourful dish.
This Valencian answer to the Sunday family roast is a cause of great debate and passion. What makes a paella a paella instead of simply arroz con (“rice with”)?
At risk of starting a second civil war I shall put forth my definition, after a lot of research. A paella is a paella if:
a) It follows a defined paella recipe and is not just some thrown together rice concoction.
b) It is cooked in a paellera (the low flat and wide pan from which the paella gets its name).
c) It uses ‘correct’ paella rice like Bomba, Calasparra or Senia. Everything else, or every other permutation, could be called ‘arroz con‘; rice with.
That famous one – the one the tourist traps hawk at you with and crappy bars have grand faded photos of outside – is the paella de marisco: the seafood paella. I find it a little boring to be honest. But there is a whole world of rice dishes. You don’t just like ‘curry’, you like a Rogan Josh or a Madras or a Butter Chicken. You don’t just like paella, you like a paella valenciana, arroz a banda, arroz negro.
Here’s a couple of popular varieties that you might find:
Paella Valenciana (rabbit, green beans, chicken)
Arroz a banda (no extras, just rice cooked in fish stock)
Arroz negro (cuttlefish, squid ink, served with alioli)
Paella mixta (the surf and turf; meat and seafood)
Paella de carne/vegetariana (either meat or veggie based)
Arroz con bogavante (lobster rice)
There’s also meloso (squidgy like a risotto) and caldoso (liquidy, more like a rice stew).
Also be quality-wary of places offering dishes for one person. Probably a touristy place. Generally it is a dish shared by a minimum of two; with some of the pan sizes increasing to the objectively ridiculous and barely fitting on the tables. However, this being tapas, some bars in Madrid might give you a little plate to share with your drinks.
(Note: Jamie Oliver recently got in hot water after putting chorizo in a paella. In his defence, during the Franco era people put whatever they had lying around into the dish. This included everything from frankfurters to…chorizo!)
Where I eat:
Madrid – Costa Blanca (Calle Bravo Murillo, 3), Paella de la Reina (Calle de la Reina, 39).
Alicante (San Juan) – Casa Pepe (Av de Cataluña, 14)
Valencia (El Saler) – Arrocería L’Estibador (Paseo de la Dehesa, 3)
What I drink with it:
With paella you really can’t do better than going white. A real winner is a glass of Verdil by Toni Arráez. But, that being a little specific, classic Albariño white wines from Rías Baixas or Chardonnay from Penedès works wonders. A good fruit-forward acidic white with body will do the job.
What I listen to while eating:
On Earth as it is in Heaven (‘The Mission’) – Ennio Morricone