If the chefs at Valencia’s School of Rice and Paella were food celebrities, their kitchen personas would fall somewhere between Gordon Ramsay and Greg Wallace. They’re masters at barking out orders and passionate about ensuring a “laaavely plate of food” is created. As I follow their quick-fire instructions, a branded apron covering most of my body and a silly paper hat holding back my hair, I feel like a cooking show contestant. A sweaty one.
I travelled to the Spanish city of Valencia, the birthplace of paella more than 200 years ago, in search of the dish’s secrets. Paella was originally created by servants and farm labourers using banquet leftovers and outdoor open fires, and today it stands strong as a symbol of the city’s heritage, as well as a communal summer dining favourite the world over.
The traditional Valenciana paella is made with rabbit, chicken, snails, saffron, and paprika, alongside a shelled broad bean called garafó, ferradura (a kind of runner bean), and of course, bomba paella rice.
“The quality of produce is fundamental, as in other types of cuisine, but what is twice as important is all the love and care you put in it,” my cooking teacher José Manuel Benito explains. There’s a lot of passionate gesticulation going on to emphasise the importance of this point.
As my chicken and rabbit pieces simmer in the enormous paella dish, heated by an oversized gas ring beneath, I tell Benito about the paellas I’ve eaten elsewhere in Spain. He responds with a hearty belly laugh and shakes his head.
“You have not tried paella. They do not cook paella in Mallorca or Barcelona. It doesn’t exist,” he tells me. “All over the country, rice dishes exist—traditional or modern, with more or less success—and many of them are commonly called ‘paella.’ Sometimes they are even called ‘Valencian,’ with nothing to do with the real Valenciana paella.”
Benito and I step outside for a cigarette while the paella infuses for “not a moment longer than twenty minutes.” His trusted colleague has been left to manage the heat levels in our absence. In the kitchen it’s all business, but on the narrow, picturesque street outside, Benito softens as we talk about the connection he feels with Valencia’s cuisine.
“You never stop learning about cooking paella, everyday there is something new,” he says. “My father taught me at home. He used to cook when we had guests. My mother cooked every day, but he was the one who received all the applause on those special days.”
The cooking school attracts a more diverse crowd than I’d imagined, but then who could resist an invitation to spend time with these self-proclaimed paella masters?
“We have many Valencian students who come because many friends and acquaintances cook ‘very good’ paellas and they don’t dare to try,” Benito tells me. “And those who come already knowing [how to cook paella] are surprised because they realise that many things they did are not good for the dish.”
His enthusiasm may be over-the-top, but the deadpan eye contact we’re sharing suggests it’s sincere. I bid farewell to my newfound friends, and they present me with a wooden paella spoon and a certificate that says I’m now officially a paella master, both mine to keep.
While at this point I feel a bit like the kid who got runner-up in a school competition (my paella had few of the attributes you’d expect from the hands of a paella extraordinaire), the seriousness with which these guys regard Valencia’s best known dish is fascinating in its intensity. This approach, alongside an attachment to tradition, is something that permeates the city’s whole food scene.
While other rice-based dishes have been subject to development and reimagining over the years, the Valencian paella has retained its age-old recipe, and most of the city’s chefs wouldn’t dream of tampering with it for their menus.
“Call me old fashioned, but at this stage in life I think I’d only order a traditional Paella Valenciana cooked as it always has been,” says Steve Anderson, chef at acclaimed fusion restaurant Seu Xerea. “Chefs do play around with paella though. We’ve served pan fried paella and stir fried paella, and they’re both delicious in their own way. I’ve tried deconstructed paellas too, but it really doesn’t work.”
There are a few things that experimental chefs can get away with, but even then, Valencian conventions must be taken into account.
“When I occasionally make paella for the staff lunch, I cook it in the traditional way, though I do like to include artichokes in the winter,” Anderson tells me. “I stick by the maxim, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ though artichokes are traditional in some parts of the Valencian region, so I don’t think I’d get drummed out of the restaurant federation for this little peccadillo [sin].”
Bernd Knöller, head chef at the Michelin-starred Riff Restaurant, agrees that paella doesn’t lend itself to reinvention. At his Mediterranean restaurant, they get creative with other rice dishes, but not with local paella.
“The Valencian paella is only chicken, rabbit, ferraura, and garrofón beans, snails, saffron, rice, and water. There are thousands of other paellas, but these are not Valencian paella,” he tells me. “We serve creative versions of other rice dishes such as the arroz melosa (the texture is like risotto, but never with butter, cheese, or wine) and arroz caldoso (a little bit like wine soup), but not the Paella Valenciana.”
The next day, I wander over to the neighbourhood on Valencia’s seafront. Everybody I meet tells me that the casual restaurants here are the best place to sample Paella Valenciana and experience the community atmosphere served up alongside. It’s late on a Sunday afternoon and the families of Valencia are out forming excitable swarms outside the restaurants set just across the street from the ocean.
Eventually I find a table at Casa Carmela and order a serving of the legendary paella. I’ve read that this particular restaurant still cooks their paellas outdoors over embers—the oldest and most traditional method—but I can see no trace of open fires.
As I sip a glass of regional wine, I begin to think that I’ve fallen for the lies of marketing copy. In groups of eight to 12, all the other diners I can see are sitting around grand circular tables with giant paella pans in their centres. It must be good if it attracts this many locals every weekend.
The waiter emerges from inside the building, which suggests to me that this paella has been cooked over a very normal stove in a very normal restaurant kitchen. The first thing I notice when the pan is set down are onions and garlic poking out of the rice, despite the restaurant’s reputation for following the traditional Paella Valenciana recipe.
The paella itself? Dry and sadly forgettable.
While the battle to sustain Valencia’s culinary heritage wears on, it seems the “traditional paella” label sells, whether it’s the real thing or not.