Don’t let the title of this post fool you, this was the best paella I have ever eaten. The adjective ‘transcendent’ comes to mind. It was so good it shattered all my hopes to replicate it at home.
A few weeks ago, I had glorious plans that upon my return from Valencia I would wow my friends with my own version of this dish. Instead, the good people at Casa Roberto crushed my dreams when they served me a dish that I would not be able to recreate. It’s not surprising that the best paella in Spain is found in Valencia, after all, it was basically invented there.
They did everything right. The rice layer was thin. Small bits of seafood were mixed into the rice, and mussels, shrimp and langoustine were placed on top. The rice was cooked through, but still firm to the tooth. A hint of saffron, paprika, and other spices added aroma and color. Best of all was the socarrat–that crispy, caramelized rice on the bottom.
There are many secrets and superstitions that surround the methods behind making true Valencian paella. They range from which spices, meats, and vegetables should be included/omitted, to the pan thickness, to the heat source. Many of these I had heard before, but in talking with a local, one addition caught me off guard–smoke and fire.
I already knew that having the correct paellera (the paella pan) was important. True paelleras are thin, wide dishes with a very shallow depth that doesn’t allow the paella to be thicker than an inch. To make larger portions, the dish gets wider, not taller. Creating the coveted socarrat is normally achieved by boosting the heat during the last few moments of cooking to carmelize the rice at the bottom. Once the pan is removed from the heat, the carmelization can stop immediately. Thicker pans can hold more easily hold heat making rapid temperature changes difficult–all this to say that it is easier end up with burnt the rice in a thicker pan.
The best paellas are made just south of the city of Valencia where fields of rice patties dominate the landscape. Here they have room to cook the dishes over an open fire. Not only does an open fire allow for rapid control of heat, but it also adds a mild smokieness. Valencians swear by using orange branches as their fuel source. The aromatic smoke from the fire contributes it’s flavors to the paella. This is not easily replicated in restaurants. It is only using this method can true, historic, Valencian paella be created.
As for me, I’ll have to live with the memories of this dish. (At least until I can get my hands on a paellera and some orange branches!)