A comprehensive book has been published revealing the truths and the myths surrounding paella.
Publisher, researcher and writer José María Pisa, author of 'Biografía de la Paella' book. Pablo Neustadt/©ICEX.
Author: Rodrigo García Fernández/©ICEX.
Publication Date: 14 Jun 2012
When was paella invented? What’s the difference between paella and paellera? Does paella have any essential ingredients? Answers and opinions on these and many other questions are to be found in a truly unusual volume of essays entitled 'A Biography of Paella' (De re coquinaria, 2011), by publisher, researcher and gourmet food lover José María Pisa.
Launched recently in Madrid, first at bookshop café La Fugitiva and then, a short time later, on Spain’s Book Day (23 April) at the famous San Miguel market, this book is a deserved tribute to the most well-known Spanish dish beyond our borders. Or should we say “little-known”, both in Spain and abroad? José María Pisa doesn’t beat about the bush when arguing a point that is both pessimistic and controversial: What do we call paella? Can we be sure that what we’re being offered in restaurants across the world is really paella? The author's theory points towards a more or less negative answer: we don’t know what paella is, and what we’re being sold frequently bears very little resemblance to this popular and well-loved dish.
Let’s start at the beginning. To reach this and other conclusions, José María Pisa has carried out a bibliographic study on paella using newspaper archives plus public and private libraries in Spain. His work means that we can now put a date to what is, as far as we know, the oldest reference to paella: 1857, the publication year of the recipe book La Cocina Moderna written by two Madrid chefs, M. Garciarena and M. Muñoz. This is the first documented evidence of a written paella recipe. As the author says, this date opens up a thread of debate: How is it possible that such a relatively young recipe, barely a hundred and fifty years old, could have become so distorted, both in linguistic and in culinary terms?
Other names featuring in this reference work are Felipe-Benicio Navarro (who published a treatise on paella in El Campo magazine in 1879) and Víctor Navarro Reig, a professional lawyer and amateur writer, who in 1896 wrote a cornerstone work in the young but turbulent history of this Spanish dish, Arroz a la valenciana (Valencian style rice). In the book, the author takes a look at how rice is grown and gives a list of recipes, ranging from what he calls ‘simple paella’ to other dishes such as soupy rice (caldosos), oven-baked rice (al horno) and creamy rice (melosos). The result is a pioneering taxonomy of rice dishes in Valencian Community.
Some unusual facts about paella
Spanish language is the source of some curious facts about paella. Over time, the name of the dish became the name of the pan in which it was cooked. José María Pisa, in his Biografía de la Paella, analyses the reasons why we nowadays use the term ‘paella’ to describe both the pan itself (the two-handled circular pan that comes is different diameters according to the number of people being catered for) and the food cooked in it (the recipe). A peculiar metonymy applied to the culinary scene. He also explains that the person who cooks the paella is called paellero (for a man) and paellera (for a woman), and he reports an anecdote that happened when he was doing his research. Apparently, he was talking to a Valencian chef, Rafael Vidal (from Restaurante Levante and staunch defender of the paella), who blurted out: “Don’t call me a chef, I’m a paellero”.
Was the paella originally a folk dish or was it more associated with the wealthy classes? The author seems to favor the second option: “The poorer rural inhabitants would have found it difficult to obtain all the ingredients needed for making a paella”. Also, paella was eaten on special days when the family entertained important guests and it would be cooked in the open air. It isn't surprising that in many areas of Valencia, when they talk about “salir de jira” (spending a day in the countryside, cooking and eating lunch with friends) what they really mean is “making a paella”.
What are the ingredients for paella?
This is a compulsory question for the author. Showing sound judgment, and perhaps a little mischief, José María Pisa leaves the issue unresolved: “In the book I include a selection of paella recipes published in Spain and France from the 19th century to the present day, from where you can get the key ingredients”. When we apply a little pressure, Pisa sums up his theory: “The paella, whether from Valencia or not, is a dish made of rice, white meat such as chicken and rabbit, snails, vegetables such as garrofó and ferraúra (similar to broad beans) and always with saffron.
The author has much to say on these foods and how they are used in making a paella: “I can’t condone the use of food coloring, as much of the aroma, color and flavor of the rice can only be provided by saffron”... “snails were originally put in the paella because they gave it a natural aroma of thyme, which is what they would have been feeding on"...
One of these particular snails, known in the Valencia region as vaquetes, features on the book cover designed by Isidro Ferrer, winner of the 2002 National Design Award. His image shows a slow-moving snail with a paella (the pan) as its shell. The message is that this dish could never be classed as fast food... it requires time, patience and a steady hand.
As far as we’re concerned, we’re doing out bit to defend a recipe that accompanies us Spanish in our travels and adventures abroad. We invite you to try an orthodox Valencian paella recipe. Leave the thousand and one other rice dishes with vegetables, fish or meat in the Spanish cookbook for another day. Enjoy your meal!
Rodrigo García Fernández is specialist food journalist and editorial coordinator of www.foodsfromspain.com.