Paella in the Land of Calatrava

The L’ Estimat paella valenciana had an intense orange color. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

The L’ Estimat paella valenciana had an intense orange color. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

I took a three-and-half-hour train ride from Barcelona to Valencia, the third largest city in Spain located by the Mediterranean Sea. When I got off at the train station, it did not take me long to recognize my friend Angie. Although it was my first time to meet her in person, I had seen some of her pictures online.

A native of Valencia, Angie spent some time in the Philippines in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Her father designed, built and directed a tile factory in Bulacan. She attended part of her grade school and high school at Maryknoll College (now Miriam College) in Quezon City. We met through her Maryknoll classmate and friend, Gia, of Seattle.

Angie and I started as online friends because she did the Spanish translation of my upcoming children’s book, Ballesteros on My Mind: My Hometown in the Philippines. The Spanish version is entitled Recuerdos de Ballesteros: Mi Pueblo Natal en Filipinas.

When Angie learned that I would be visiting her, she immediately emailed me that she would make sure I eat the mother of all paellas and the most revered dish in Valencia—paella valenciana.

The Arabs introduced rice to Spain. Paella valenciana, a rice dish, is believed to be the original paella concocted in the mid-19th century. The ingredients usually consist of salt, beans, water, saffron, tomatoes, white water, sweet paprika, olive oil, and chicken and rabbit meat.

Angie declared in her email, “Nobody can eat the genuine paella valenciana unless it is here in Valencia. And not every restaurant in Valencia serves the real paella valenciana. However, the best paella valenciana is cooked at home by people I call kitchen artists.”

I visited my friend Tani, a Filipino chef based in Amsterdam, before going to Spain. He agreed that paella valenciana could only be enjoyed in Valencia. “Every region has a version of paella,” he explained. “For example, there is a Catalan version. In the Philippines, we have our version of paella. It is called bringhe.

Upon reaching her place, Angie gave me my welcome gift: a socarrat of a fish made by her neighbor Dorita. Socarrat is a fired clay tile with a white base and painted in red and black. I told Angie that I would hang the socarrat in my kitchen. I like the fish subject because it is supposed to invite abundance and prosperity.

Angie gave me a welcome gift of socarrat made by her neighbor Dorita. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

Angie gave me a welcome gift of socarrat made by her neighbor Dorita. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

The first place that Angie took me to was Mercat Central. It is considered one of the oldest European public markets still operating. The Mercat Central was spacious and aesthetically pleasing. The ceramics, glass windows and iron and steel structures, especially the vaulted ceiling in the central nave, were impressive. There was a mural based on a painting of Valencian painter Joaquin Sorolla. Angie showed me the various food items specific to Valencia.

Mercat Central is Valencia’s spacious and attractive public market. The mural in the background is based on Joaquin Sorolla’s painting. (Photo courtesy of Rey de la Cruz)

Mercat Central is Valencia’s spacious and attractive public market. The mural in the background is based on Joaquin Sorolla’s painting. (Photo courtesy of Rey de la Cruz)

I asked Angie to take me to the Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados, which was built in honor of the city’s patron saint. The image of Our Lady of the Forsaken has a lily in one hand and the Baby Jesus, who is carrying a cross in his arms, in the other. Angie said the statue used to have a pillow under its head and placed on top of a coffin. That explains the statue’s slight forward tilt, if not a hunchback posture.

I brought home an image of Valencia’s patron saint, Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

I brought home an image of Valencia’s patron saint, Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

World-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava seems to be Valencia’s favorite son. His Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences), an urban and leisure complex, dominates the city’s skyline. Although there is grandeur in the buildings, I also noticed the soothing abundance of water.

L’ Hemisferic is one of the buildings in Santiago Calatrava’s Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias. (Photo courtesy of Rey de la Cruz)

L’ Hemisferic is one of the buildings in Santiago Calatrava’s Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias. (Photo courtesy of Rey de la Cruz)

Right after visiting Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias, Angie took me to lunch with Paloma and Hector, her daughter and son-in-law, at L’Estimat, a beachfront restaurant known for its paella valenciana. It was Sunday, the day paella valenciana is generally cooked for a family lunch.

Paloma reiterated her mother’s statement that the genuine paella valenciana could only be eaten in Valencia. “Aside from the specificity of some of the ingredients to Valencia,” she remarked, “the city also has a distinctive water because it is rich in lime.”

Hector emphasized the importance of using a paellera, the pan used in cooking and serving paella valenciana. Made of polished steel, it is round with a flat bottom. Also, it has two handles to support the weight of the dish. “There are certain dimensions to be followed depending on the quantity of rice or the taste and style of cooking paella valenciana,” he explained.

Paella valenciana is traditionally cooked outdoors, using orange firewood. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

Paella valenciana is traditionally cooked outdoors, using orange firewood. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

According to Angie, paella valenciana is traditionally cooked outdoors. Ideally, wood from orange trees is used as fuel to achieve a certain flavor, as well as provide a constant fire.

Bravo! The much-awaited paella valenciana finally arrived, and I took a picture of it. I lost no time in eating my portion. But being a first-time eater, I wondered about the basis for considering a good paella valenciana.

Angie showed me the bottom of the pan. “Socarrat is the tile I gave you. But it also has another meaning. It refers to the crusty rice at the bottom of the paella valenciana. The socarrat should be crispy, meaning the paella valenciana has been cooked to perfection.” In addition, the chicken and rabbit meat should be browned.

I can now brag that I have eaten the authentic paella valenciana right in its birthplace, the city of Valencia. And to prove it, I have documented my once-in-a-lifetime gastronomic experience in this article!

Photo editing by Ivan Kevin R. Castro


Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed. D.

Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed. D.

Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed.D., writes from Chicagoland when he is not busy traveling and loving the arts.


The Authentic Paella Valenciana

Paella valenciana is the mother of all paellas and the most revered dish in Valencia. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

Paella valenciana is the mother of all paellas and the most revered dish in Valencia. (Photo by Rey de la Cruz)

The authentic paella valenciana has only one recipe, which was transcribed by Angie and her friends below.

Ingredients

6 cups of seria or bomba rice
1 chicken cut in small pieces
½ rabbit cut in small pieces
250 grams of ferraura (local green beans that broad and flat)
200 grams of garrofo (a large and flat white variety of lima beans) or tabella (a type of long white beans)
100 grams of crushed ripe tomatoes
150 deciliters of olive oil
sweet paprika
strands of saffron
salt
12 cups of water (Valencian water has a high level of lime)

Procedure

Brown the chicken and the rabbit in olive oil. Add the crushed tomatoes and the beans and cook for 20 minutes, stirring all the time. Add the paprika and stir, add the water, the saffron, and the salt. Add the rice and cook until it is done. Let the paella stand for a few minutes before eating.


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August 11, 2014
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