FOOD & DRINK / Perfect paella - and not a prawn in sight: Chicken, rabbit, snails and beans are the essence of Spain's national dish - not the shellfish added as a tourist aberration. Michael Bateman goes in search of the real thing

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The Independent Culture
YOU DON'T have to be able to pronounce it to cook it. But the television cooks and commentators who have been jumping on the Spanish bandwagon and insisting that theirs is the only true and authentic paella, make us hispanophiles see red - and also bright yellow, those being the colours of the Spanish flag.

A television cook who couldn't pronounce the word a year ago (there we go again) has been saying that although he can't cook Spanish desserts, he makes a 'brilliant paella'. He recommends that you eat it with allioli, the garlic-flavoured mayonnaise. But allioli isn't served with paella. Then you realise that he has given a recipe for a Spanish dish of seafood and rice, probably arroz abanda or arroz a la marinera, where allioli is the essential accompaniment. But it's not a paella. The authentic paella of Valencia, where the dish originates, is always made with chicken and rabbit (and quite often snails) and three kinds of beans - but not with fish. Not even with shellfish, although this is the garnish of the tourist circuit.

A pedantic distinction, you might think, but the people of Valencia resent the way the name of their unique dish is abused the world over. The food writer Colman Andrews, an authority on Spanish cooking, keeps a cutting of a recipe in a Los Angeles newspaper for paella. It's made with 'leftover turkeys', he says, 'canned chopped clams, sliced pepperoni, and Spanish rice mix - cooked in the microwave'. And in Britain supermarkets have no conscience about hijacking the name paella as a label for any packet of pre-cooked rice with peas and frozen prawns.

Last year, another television cook tossed quick-cook rice in a non-stick frying pan for his version of paella. But an authentic paella is not particularly quick. This cook, too, couldn't pronounce the word. It's not pah-eller; it's pie-ey-yar. And it is cooked in a wide, flat metal pan, the paella (from the Latin patella), which gives it its name.

To purists, it's actually offensive to suggest that an authentic paella can be made in a regular frying pan (though enough for two or three could be cooked in a large one). The proportions of the pan, shallow and wide, contribute to the technical execution of the dish.

Of course everyone who has been to Spain thinks they have eaten the only true paella. Some years ago I lived in Pego, a rice-growing valley south of Valencia, the natural home of paella. Outside my place, a converted poultry barn, was a flattened patch of rock, where once a year villagers brought the rice from the waterlogged fields for threshing. To loosen the grain, they harnessed a carousel of mules. Then men with wooden forks tossed the straw away, leaving the plump, fat, round grain to be swept up, cleaned and put into sacks. I was flattered to be invited to a beach party by one of the village families; it was in fact their way of mobilising my Volkswagen to transport the grandmother and numerous younger members of the family, not to mention the paella ingredients - several kilos of rice, and pots of rabbit and chicken pieces warm in their stock.

We drove to the sandy beach at Oliva, five miles away, and the men lit a fire with driftwood, propped the 2ft-wide paella pan on a trivet, and poured in the rabbit and chicken with the stock. When it was boiling they sprinkled on the rice and it bubbled fiercely for ten minutes. Then they let the fire down and the rice cooked slowly for another 30 minutes. It was delicious.

The memory was prompted by talking to Pepita Aris, whose book The Spanishwoman's Kitchen is published in October (Cassell pounds 16.95). 'So much waffle has been written about the paella this year,' she exploded, and then went on to describe the greatest paella she ever ate, which was to celebrate a marriage, and cooked in a workingman's beach bar in the shabby end of the otherwise beautiful city of Valencia. Here Pepita was initiated into the mystery of the authentic paella, with its trinity of local beans: the garrofon, big and flat like a butter bean; tavellas, young white kidney beans; and green beans, flat green ferraura pods. At the end they scraped the crispy bit from the bottom of the rice in the middle, a prized morsel. 'It's called soccarat, and named after a village down the coast,' she said. 'It's usually missing in expatriate paellas.'

Of course, Valencianos would say their dish is abused as much in Spain as in other countries. On the other hand, say the grand chefs, why shouldn't they elevate what is basically a very simple peasant dish? So they pile it with squid, mussels, prawns, crayfish, peas, red and green peppers, lemon slices.

Maria Jose Sevilla, whose programme Spain on a Plate was shown on BBC2 earlier in the year, agrees. But she believes that if you are going to break the rules, you should know what the rules are. In her programme she cooked an outdoor paella which took 45 minutes. 'The BBC asked if I could do a quicker paella. I said: 'I cook a proper paella, or I don't do it at all'.'

The first essential is to use the right rice. It won't do to use American long grain rice, or Patna rice or Basmati rice, because these don't absorb the cooking liquid in the appropriate way. 'The short, round-grained stubby Spanish rice absorbs a lot of liquid, expanding like a concertina,' explains Lourdes March, Spain's own authority on paella and rice dishes. 'It stretches longitudinally as it cooks.'

Italian risotto rice does the same thing, and it too is fine for making good paellas (ask for Spanish Bomba or Italian Arborio rice). But there the similarity between a paella and a risotto ends. To cook risotto you put the rice in seasoned hot oil, in which onion and garlic may have been cooked, then add boiling stock, and stir continuously for 20 minutes, no more. For a paella, and many other Spanish rice dishes too, you throw rice on to the boiling liquid, lower the heat, and cook without stirring.

The size of the pan is critical too. The average large frying pan is barely big enough for a paella for three, because the rice must cook in a shallow layer in order to cook right through. The heat source is also critical, since the heat needs to spread evenly to the whole pan.

Another essential is the browning of the meat. It's not enough to cook it lightly; it needs to cook until golden brown, and the caramelisation will impart essential flavour and colour. The plumped-up grains of rice should be al dente and an appetising brown when done. You must also get the proportions of rice to liquid right. Lourdes March gives 1 litre of liquid to 400g of Bomba rice (or in volume, 1 part rice to 2 1/2 to 3 times as much liquid). The selection of ingredients is important (don't use turmeric or colouring if you haven't got saffron), and so is the order in which they are cooked.

The much-quoted Penelope Casas, who wrote The Foods and Wines of Spain (Penguin pounds 13.99), starts her paella on the stove, then finishes it in the oven; a valid dish, for they cook rice dishes like this in in earthenware cazuelas in Valencia - but it's not a paella, Maria Jose insists.

To know what a joy the real thing is, cook this dish once to the rules. Then you'll know what you're doing when you break them. This is the definitive recipe, for which you'll need a proper pan - but you could use smaller quantities in a 12in frying pan, or use two pans.

PAELLA A LA VALENCIANA

Serves 4

12oz short-grain rice, Bomba or Arborio

3 pints water

1lb corn-fed chicken, cut into pieces

1lb rabbit, cut into pieces

16 cleaned snails, or a sprig of rosemary

2 tablespoons (100 ml) olive oil

5oz green beans, cut into 1in pieces

4oz lima beans, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed

4oz white butter beans (also soaked overnight)

4oz tomatoes, deseeded and finely chopped

a pinch of saffron strands, 1 tablespoon paprika, salt

Cook the soaked, dried butter beans and lima beans in a pint of water for 45 minutes or until nearly soft. Trim the chicken and rabbit, leaving the bones in. Heat the oil in a 16in (40 cm) paella pan with a pinch of salt. When hot, fry the chicken and rabbit in it over a medium heat until golden brown on all sides. Add the green beans and fry for 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and cook another 3 minutes.

In another pan, boil the snails for 5 minutes and drain. Steep and crush the saffron in a little boiling water. Sprinkle the paprika in the pan, add water and rest of beans and bring to the boil. Now add the snails, or the rosemary, the saffron, and another pinch of salt. Simmer, covered with a sheet of foil, for 30 to 45 minutes until meat is tender. If the level of liquid has gone down, top it up with boiling water.

Sprinkle the rice into the boiling liquid and cook over a high heat for 10 minutes. Turn down the heat, and leave to cook without disturbing for 10 minutes until the liquid has evaporated. If it doesn't seem completely cooked at the end, don't just add more hot water. Take it off the heat and cover with a dampened, folded tea cloth for 10 minutes. Leave to stand, and the rice will continue to cook.

'Spain on a Plate' by Maria Jose Sevilla is published by BBC Books at pounds 14.95, pounds 8.99 paperback.

Paella pans available at Products from Spain, 89 Charlotte St, London W1P 1LP (071-580 2905), in sizes to serve 1 to 50: pan for 4, pounds 5.51, pounds 10.28 for 10. They also sell Bomba rice at pounds 1.34 a kilo.

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