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The paella is Spain's favourite dish. It encompasses all that is Spanish . . . the colour, passion, variety and social warmth of the people.

Originally a poor man's dish, the paella has worldwide fame with each region, town, village and even household creating their own versions of this gastronomic phenomenon. There are many paella competitions all over Spain ranging from the biggest to the best tasting and each region has its own dedicated 'Paella Day' in Barcelona it is a Thursday and here in Andalucia it is a Friday although traditionally it was Spain's very own Sunday lunch.

The origin of paella can be traced to the region of Valencia in south eastern Spain where rice is extensively grown, without which there would be no paella! The traditional and original 'paella valenciana' contained apart from rice, chicken, pork or rabbit and whatever vegetables could be found in the countryside such as tomatoes and peppers. It was traditionally cooked by the workers out in the fields using whatever was to hand at the time to combine with the rice in order to make a satisfying, nutritious meal to sustain the workers for their day of work.

Paella Paella

Since its humble beginnings, the paella has adapted and blossomed and can contain a whole host of ingredients including seafood, different meats and other local specialities such as chorizo, Serrano ham or purely vegetables. It is because of the contrasts of the country, the people and the variety within Spain that the ancient paella dish has evolved from being a cheap means of feeding many people to a beautiful, exciting social dish steeped in tradition.

Although modern day paellas can contain almost anything, there are a few basic ingredients which must be included for a paella to be a paella and the rice used is the most important one. True paella rice comes from Valencia and is known as 'arroz de calasparra' it is short grain, has a protective 'denominacion de origen' quality stamp and has outstanding absorption characteristics. Local 'bomba' rice is also considered the perfect rice for paella as it too is deliciously plump with capabilities of absorbing the all important stock, thus each grain being packed full of flavour.

When cooked, genuine paella rice should be soft, moist and each grain needs to be separated - totally different from risotto rice which goes creamy and sticks together. Another characteristic of perfect paella rice is it produces a delicacy known as 'socarrat' which is when the rice sticks to the pan at the bottom and becomes crispy. Although this can be achieved by turning up the heat for the final few minutes of cooking your paella, the only way to do this properly is to cook your paella outdoors on a wood fire as was the traditional method.

Saffron is probably the next most important ingredient which gives the rice the lovely, deep golden yellow colour. Colorants can be used to achieve a similar colour but there is nothing quite like the true taste and smell of saffron. Although saffron is quite expensive, only a small amount is needed as a little goes a long way. It will also keep for up to three years if stored in the right conditions and really is a key ingredient in a truly authentic paella.

Whatever the chosen ingredients, a paella must be cooked in a proper paella pan or 'paellera' which is a large flat shallow pan first introduced to Valencia by the Romans. The characteristics of this special pan, means all the ingredients are cooked in one layer and the rice absorbs the stock right down to the bottom where most of the flavour is. It is from this pan where the name 'paella' can be traced as it was called a ' patella' which is Latin for flat pan. Other theories about the name's origin include deriving from 'para ella' (for her) as it was traditionally the men folk who cooked this dish. Or from the Arabic word baqiyah, meaning leftovers as servants to Moorish kings used to mix the leftovers from frequent banquets with rice and take them home. Although the latter two are a bit more romantic, it is understood that the paella really is named after the pan used to cook it in, as it is such an important piece of equipment, no other type of pan will do.

Not only is it important to have the right pan, it must be used properly for a perfect paella. Cooking outdoors on a wood fire is important for the socarrat and also important to cook the paella evenly. The heat source must be the same size as the base of the pan so if using an indoor stove with burners not quite big enough, it is important to straddle the pan over two or three burners to achieve an even heat. Similarly if cooking on an outdoor barbecue or burner that is not quite as big as the pan, rotate the pan several times during cooking to distribute the heat evenly and stir the rice a few times at the beginning of cooking.

Not only is the paella pan important for cooking, it is important for serving and makes a great table centrepiece. The traditional and best way to serve a paella is to do as the Spanish do and simply let everyone dig in with their forks. The paella is a truly social affair right from the cooking to the eating and there is nothing like jostling with friends to get the best bits of meat or enjoying a lively conversation over the pan while the stock bubbles and the fire crackles. Paella is often an excuse for a party as you never make a paella just for two, you can enjoy it for lunch in the countryside or even on the beach during the warm summer evenings with friends and family.

If there ever was a perfect dish to capture the generosity of spirit, warmth and friendliness of the Spanish people, then the paella is it.

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Published 21 January 2008

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