FOOD & DRINK: GRAIN IN SPAIN

Often attempted here, never perfected. Has a British supermarket finally pin-pointed the secrets of the perfect paella? Michael Bateman joins the team from Tesco as they put their recipe to the ultimate taste- test in the home of Spain's national dish, Valencia
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The Independent Culture
PAELLA ISN'T something that the British can pronounce, let alone cook. But it really doesn't matter how you say it. We say Par-is not Paree, so why not pa-eller instead of pa-eh-ya?

But what really does matter is how you cook pa-ella. A heap of screamingly yellow rice with a prawn sticking out of it is not a paella, although most supermarkets seem to think that this will do. OK, this is nothing to get over-excited about; name any classic foreign dish, from coq au vin to risotto, that the supermarkets haven't abused. But the big news is this: someone out there isn't ruining paella.

A recent tasting of rival products revealed one, and only one, seafood paella which more than half resembled and tasted like the real thing. An appetising colour, a robust texture, the dense tastes of rich stock, a full, roasted flavour. Step forward, Tesco.

It wasn't perfect, it's true - the rice wasn't as sticky and gooey as you might have found in Spain, but it was light years ahead of any that its rivals produce. And it seems that the customers agree - since Tesco launched its seafood paella earlier this year, it has become the most popular dish in the new Bistro Collection. So much so that they plan to produce a sister dish, an (almost) authentic Paella Valenciana with chicken (to be truly authentic it would also include rabbit and snails with the chicken).

If Tesco can crack it, maybe the other stores can. What is the secret? Tesco thought paella an obvious candidate for inclusion in their new Bistro Collection; a peasant dish made with rice and a few inexpensive ingredients had to be easy: but this was not the case.

As Sarina Edwards, Tesco's product development manager admits, all the early attempts foundered. She's a trained biologist who beefed up her CV with a year at the Cordon Bleu cookery school. With her collaborator Martin Daniels (divisional development chef at Hazlewood Foods and former restaurateur and chef), she soon discovered that there were no models on the market that were in any way authentic. In London, they failed to track down a single restaurant doing a paella worthy of the name. Trawling through Spanish cookery books, they despaired of finding a formula they could match at their factory in Warrington, Cheshire.

Then they approached a company called Tasting Places, which organises cookery schools. TP immediately directed Tesco to Valencia, Spain's rice- growing heartland and source of the national dish. It also identified some of Spain's best paella cooks who would be prepared to share their knowledge in the interest of spreading the word about this often-abused dish.

And so, earlier this year, in a mild Valencian January, the Tesco team touched down in Spain's third city for a feast of paellas. Their interpreter was Stephen Anderson, formerly assistant to Alastair Little at his cookery school in Orvieto in Tuscany. An inspired choice, it turned out, for not only is he fluent in Spanish, he also runs the only British restaurant in this city of a million souls (it's called Seu-Xarea and wins high praise in the top Spanish food guide, Le Mejor Guia de la Gastronomia, which admires his "modern British cooking" while referring to London as "the gastronomic capital of the world").

So it was that Tesco came, saw, and more or less conquered the mysteries of paella (which have evaded Brits since the beginning of time), returning with their secrets to Costa Warrington. But how to translate them into a factory cooking regime? It took 23 factory trials to achieve the desired result, each one measured against a family-sized paella cooked in the kitchen.

Consider the problem. Paella is traditionally cooked in a shallow, 26cm (12in), two-handled pan, the level of rice and liquid no deeper than three- quarters of an inch. You'd need a paella pan a mile across to meet supermarket production demands.

Martin set out to deconstruct the paella. Obviously, the type of rice used was important. Spanish short-grain rice resembles Italian risotto rice, quadrupling in size, expanding to absorb the flavour of the stock it cooks in. In the factory ovens it didn't work. When re-cooked in a microwave or oven, Spanish rice over-cooked. So they had to use pre-fluffed rice. Could the dish survive this compromise?

Yes, says Martin. The flavour injected into the rice is the very essence of the paella. People might think that a seafood paella is rice with seafood in it, but that's not really so. It is rice intensely flavoured with seafood - you could even chuck the seafood away.

"The other secret of paella," says Martin, "is the finish. You won't produce the real thing unless you know the trick of soccarat." In the name of the World Cup, what's soccarat? Soccarat, he explains, is the sticky coating at the bottom of the pan which you scrape up at the end, otherwise known as the best bits (possibly named after a village down the coast).

And so it was that Martin re-assembled the essential elements; rice cooked in stock, the soccarat (achieved by roasting the vegetables) and the filling (fish).

A couple of weeks ago Tesco did a very brave thing. I joined them on a return to trip to Valencia, where they took their packs of Valencian Seafood Paella (pounds 4.99) in its round plastic containers, made in the Provincia del Cheshire, to try out on the natives. Ouch; was this going to be embarrassing?

In fact, Sarina and Martin were quietly confident. Martin felt he'd truly been introduced to the authentic paella on his last visit, thanks chiefly to his tutors, notably the Salvador family at Casa Salvador in El Soler and Carmina at Casa Carmina.

With them, and thanks to the laser eye of the gifted Stephen Anderson, I was also initiated into the secrets that had so long eluded me. Isn't it elevating to think that such everyday ingredients as a bit of rice and rabbit and a few beans can, by some kitchen alchemy, turn into gastronomic gold? In the hands of these wonderful cooks it did.

We drove first to the edge of the rice fields of Albufera, to the Casa Salvador, situated beside a river dotted with boats and anglers. It may have been a grass-roofed barraca (peasant hut) once, but now it's a very grand restaurant indeed.

It feeds 800 a day at weekends. Three cooks belt out an unending stream of paellas using a battery of 22 paella pans (another, larger, kitchen deals with the other restaurant needs).

We sat outdoors on the verandah on a roasting hot evening, cooled every half hour by a curtain of water jetted from a hundred tiny waterpipes in the roof, spraying into the river in front of us. Surely heaven must be modelled on this.

We hurried backwards and forwards to the kitchen with Stephen, who talked us through the highlights of the action, demanding slow-motion replays. I would have missed the soccarat conjuring trick completely if Stephen hadn't nudged me at the critical moment. Now you see it, now you don't.

The Valenciana paella (no seafood, only chicken, rabbit, snails and three kinds of beans) and a seafood dish of skate and green garlic shoots were both of stupendously intense flavour.

In Valencia the next day, after a glimpse of Spain's most elegant and beautiful market (which is pure theatre - every charismatic young girl in Valencia clearly aspires to work here, the chance to dress up and perform), we get to Carmina's, another family restaurant, smaller, but everything you might hope it to be. Carmina's husband, up at 4am to buy produce at the fish market, is straining the fish stock. Carmina's young daughter radiates the sort of personality which you feel will carry the restaurant through to the 2050s at least.

We watched, enthralled, as Carmina talked us through two sublime paellas, one seafood and the other the authentic chicken, rabbit and snails. The stock wasn't as strong as she'd have liked, so she took a few ladlefuls from the one reserved for (I can't betray her) a most important person in the city.

The secrets of soccarat were explained (see box) but to fast forward, what did she think of Tesco's offering, allegedly based on hers?

Carmina didn't have the vocabulary to comment on pre-fluffed rice, which she rather thought on the soft side, and she found the pieces of red pepper quite irrelevant (the British think red pepper gives anything a Mediterranean feel). But otherwise she gave a thumbs-up to the overall character, the perfect sunset colour, the seafood flavour. A success? Oh, yes.

HOW TO MAKE THE PERFECT PAELLA

It is hard to make a perfect paella at home for several reasons, though the difficulty in getting the right short-grain rice, Spanish bomba, can be overcome by substituting Italian risotto rice such as arborio.

The real problem is finding the right pan and a suitable heat source. Firstly, the technique demands a wide, shallow pan. So a paella for four requires a 35cm (16in) pan; a paella for two, a 26cm (12in) pan. Unless you have a private passion for paella you're unlikely you have a pan wide enough, since few kitchen frying pans are more than 22cm (10in) at the base. Secondly, to ensure even cooking, Spanish paella cooks use a heat diffuser to spread the heat across this wide base - an attachment that fits onto a regular gas cooker. I bought one, but British Gas can't give me enough pressure to make it function. Spain One, UK Nil.

However, if you follow the recipe opposite, you'll be on the road to mastering one of the great dishes of the world.

The most important feature is the shallow level of liquid (water or stock) in the pan. It is never filled higher than the half-way mark. If you do have a super-wide pan, you should use a diffuser of some kind. It can also help towards even cooking if you rotate your pan by a quarter every few minutes during the key 15- to 18-minute cooking of the rice.

Some other key points. Onions never in a Valencian paella, but why not a tomato (in the restaurants they used strained, pureed fresh tomato)? It caramelises to give flavour to the sticky base, the soccarat, at the end.

In Valencia market you could buy the three kinds of beans used in this paella; do use the green beans, but it's not worth soaking dry Lima beans (or haricot beans) and butter beans for a dish for two, so add a few from cans of borlotti and/or butter beans. And you'll not be able to get hold of the lovely, small, thin-shelled brown mountain snails of Valencia, even if you are minded to spend three days preparing them in changes of salt water, before cooking them (start in cold water or they pop their heads back in their shells). A sprig of rosemary can be substituted. If you can't get rabbit (or your children have pet rabbits) double up on the chicken.

Other points: the pre-cooking of the meat to brown is important - it adds flavour and colour to the water, creating the stock that gives the rice its character (by the way, unlike Indian, Spanish rice is never washed before cooking).

The Spanish always add salt to the cooking oil, apparently to season the meat more effectively. Another view is that it stops the oil splashing.

In Valencia, meat and fish are never mixed, so an auth- entic Paella Valenciana is not garnished with seafood. Indeed, if we're splitting hairs, Valencianos will tell you that seafood never appears in paella at all, but they accept that the rest of Spain does not agree. They don't call the second recipe (opposite) a seafood paella but Arroz a la Marinera, even though it's cooked in a paella pan, and its taste is no less superb. It has been provided by Food from Spain's Maria Jose Sevilla, truly an authority on the subject.

PAELLA VALENCIANA WITH CHICKEN AND RABBIT

Serves 2

180g/612oz short-grain rice, Spanish bomba or Italian arborio

500ml/l8fl oz water

half a free-range chicken cut into 4, bone included

4 pieces of rabbit, with bone

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large tomato, pureed (crushed through a sieve)

75g/3oz French beans, cut to 5cm/2in lengths

50g/2oz each cooked borlotti and butter beans, if available

8 snails (or a sprig of rosemary)

generous pinch of saffron (say 20 threads)

1 teaspoon best paprika powder

sea salt

Using your widest frying pan, preferably 26cm (12in) across, heat the oil through over a medium heat, and add a generous pinch of salt.

Fry the chicken and rabbit for about 10 minutes, stirring until brown on all sides. Add the green beans and cook for another two minutes. Add the tomato and stir for a minute.

Sprinkle on the paprika powder and stir it in, heating through for 30 seconds or so (it must not burn). Add the water immediately and raise heat to full. As the water comes to the boil, add the saffron and another generous pinch of salt. Make a note of the water level.

Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, until meat is tender. There will be some evaporation, so add enough boiling water to bring the liquid level back to the original (to reduce evaporation you could cover the dish with foil).

Toss in the rice in handfuls and boil rapidly for 10 minutes without stirring (once the rice is added, it is not stirred again). Now add the beans and snails (or rosemary). Turn the heat to medium and cook for five to eight more minutes. Most of the liquid will be absorbed. Taste the rice; the grains should be soft but chewy at the centre. It doesn't matter if it's not cooked through.

At this stage the rice shouldn't stick to the bottom of the pan. So turn down to lowest heat, wait for one minute (so the oil settles), then turn it up to full and the oil will fry the sticky rice at the bottom. Using a wooden spoon to test, prod the rice on the base of the pan until you feel it beginning to stick (a minute or so). Then turn off heat immediately.

Remove paella to a warm place. Sometimes a folded newspaper is placed on top (the Independent on Sunday's Real Life is a realistic substitute for La Provincia) to allow the rice to go on cooking and flavours to mingle.

The unevenness in cooking is recognised as being essential to the perfect paella. It will be overcooked on the bottom, soft and moist in the middle, a trifle underdone on top.

When it's served in the best paella restaurant in Valencia, the host will stand up and stir the rice to mix all the different elements. A worse dog's dinner it would be hard to imagine, but they know what they are doing. It's the stuff that dreams are made of.

Finally, what to do with the left-overs. What leftovers? There are no leftovers. End of story.

ARROZ A LA MARINERA

Serves 4

This is dry rice cooked in a paella dish. The secret of its success is the exquisite stock that is traditionally made in the fishing villages from small, cheap, but very flavoursome fish. The stock also contains an assortment of shellfish. The version given here has been adapted for the city dweller and is somewhat refined, so will tend to lack the stronger flavours that are obtained when these dishes are prepared in the sea ports. If you can buy live Dublin Bay prawns, they will need to be boiled first. Drop them into a large pan of boiling salted water. Cover and bring back to the boil. Simmer over a low heat for about 10 minutes, then drain and leave to cool.

250g/9oz monkfish, cut into pieces

1 hake's head, rinsed and dried

250g/9oz Dublin Bay prawns

4 tablespoons plain flour

200ml/7fl oz olive oil

1 Spanish onion, peeled and chopped

2 tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and chopped

2 teaspoons paprika

1.2 litres/2 pints water

2 strands saffron

250g/9oz mussels, scrubbed and bearded

4 large uncooked prawns

250g/9oz squid

1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped

400g/14oz medium-grain rice

Sprinkle the monkfish, hake's head and Dublin Bay prawns with salt and coat the fish with flour. Heat half the oil and fry the monkfish and hake's head for a few minutes, then remove from the pan and put to one side.

Fry the prawns for a few minutes then put them to one side. Peel them and put the tails to one side.

Use a mortar and pestle to crush the heads, shells and claws. Remove the skin and bone from the fried fish and put them and the fish to one side.

Re-heat the oil in a large pan and fry the onion until translucent. Add one tomato, one teaspoon of paprika, the water and a pinch of salt. Add the crushed prawn shells and the skin and bones from the fish. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer over a medium heat for 45 minutes.

Strain the stock. Crush the saffron then dissolve it in a little boiling water and add it to the warm fish stock.

Place the mussels in a saucepan with 1cm (12in) of water, and steam over a low heat for five minutes, shaking occasionally, until all the shells have opened. Discard any mussels which have not opened and remove and discard the empty top shells. Strain the juices into the fish stock.

To prepare the squid, pull the head and tentacles away from the body. Pull off and discard the skin. Split the body in half to remove and discard the transparent bony section. Cut the tentacles from the head just above the eye. Discard the head. Wash the body and tentacles thoroughly in running water. Drain and chop.

Heat the remaining oil in a 40cm (16in) paella pan, sprinkle the large prawns with salt and fry them and the squid for two minutes. Add the garlic and the remaining tomato and fry for a further two minutes. Add the remaining paprika and the rice, stirring rapidly. Add no more than 250ml (8fl oz) of the hot fish stock and season to taste with salt. Bring to the boil and cook over a high heat for 10 minutes. Add the fish and prawn tails, lower the heat and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Remove from the heat, decorate with the mussels, then cover and leave for five minutes before serving.

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