As the potato is said to typify the predilections of the Irish, roast beef symbolises Olde England, and the frog’s leg the dainty dining of France, so the paella is dismissed as the catch-all cuisine of Spain – which goes to show how wrong you can be.

The true home of the paella lies in the Communitat de Valencia; more specifically in the 140 kilometres that separate the city of Valencia and the fishing town of Villajoyosa, 10 kilometres south of Benidorm. The Albufera, the huge rice growing area just outside Valencia city and the area surrounding Pego, eight kilometres inland from the Mediterranean coast, were historically the major rice producing areas in Spain, and it was the quality of the produce that led to the area being recognised as providing some of the best food in the whole of the Valencian Community.

The romantic (although some might say ridiculous) origin of the name paella is said to be because the dish was first cooked by a young man for his lover – he made it para ella (for her), but the more realistic is that it takes its name from the shallow two-handled frying pan in which it is traditionally cooked and is derived from the Latin patella.

To the uninitiated, a paella is a paella is a paella, but the subtleties of its preparation, the exact timing of when to add the water and for how long it should ‘lie’ before being served are the subject of fierce debate.

“This is the food of our parents,” says Antonio Barco, Head of Food Studies at CdT, the Centre for the Development of Tourism, “and whilst the basics of the dish might be the same, the preparation can vary considerably from family to family and from the coast to the mountains of the interior.””

According to Antonio it is these regional differences that account for the great ‘rice debate’ – do the ingredients go in the pan to cook with the rice or are they added after the rice is cooked? “In Denia, just to the north of Benidorm, they use a lot of chicken and rabbit so the meat is cooked in the paella with plenty of water, but in the Costa Blanca we use a lot of fish, which cooks much more quickly so the rice is cooked first and then the fish is added.”

The story goes that there is a Spanish restaurant in New York that imports its water from Valencia to make paella. Antonio says that it isn’t the joke it might seem.

“Valencianos believe that a true paella can only be made in Valencia because the water has as high concentration of calcium which affects how the rice is cooked. If they go to the mountains or to make a picnic somewhere else they will always take the water with them.”









Antonio remembers his mother cooking paella as a child but never remembers eating the same dish twice. “The basis of paella is very simple, it was basically a poor man’s food at a time when most people lived at a subsistence level. You used what you had around you, tomato, a little garlic, meat, a few vegetables and then whatever else you had to hand – although you never mixed meat and fish, that’s a modern invention for the guiris!” he laughs, guiri being a tongue-in-cheek name for a foreigner. “But the essence of the meal was rice – and everyone’s different opinion.”

Just as a flamenco aficionado will tell you that only a gypsy born of poverty in the south of Spain can truly dance flamenco (which rather flies in the face of the fact that the flamboyant dance form actually came from India), a Valenciano will tell you that only a true son of the Valencian soil will be able to make a genuine paella, and each will guarantee you that his own recipe is the best—although they had to chew on their words a bit when a Japanese chef won the region’s main concorso de paella (paella competition) two years in a row.

“Paella was cooked by the men in the fields and the women in the house but it is also a very social thing,” says Antonio.

Every Sunday morning when I lived in Valencia I would go to the campo with my pal Vicente and a group of friends to work on a patch of land he’s trying to bring back to horticultural life. Once a month he’ll make a huge paella and invite family and friends, as is the Valencian tradition. Everyone stands around throwing in advice while nursing a beer or a glass of wine, although they seldom actually make any effort to help in the preparation or cooking. “Put more water in.” “No, you’ll make it too soggy!” “That’s too much garlic.” “You need to let the meat brown more.” Vicente ignores them all and sticks to the same recipe his ma handed down to him. It’s a big family event, and when it’s ready we devour it in the traditional way, everyone sitting at the same table, eating out of the pan using their own wooden spoon.