What's your perfect Sunday? At The Urchin, food on Sundays used to be just like every other day. That changed in 2018 when our friend and Spanish chef, Iggy, came up with the idea of a sharing 'Seafood Paella'. It's our alternative roast and it's been a staple on the Sunday menu ever since.
But what is "authentic paella"? Are you allowed to use seafood? Does it have to be cooked over a wood fire? Is it still a humble sharing dish or has it become a gastronomic delicacy? And why is it that no one ever makes a single portion of paella?
To discover the truth, this Autumn we visited the birthplace of paella: Valencia, on the Spanish Mediterranean coast.
Day 1 - Casa Carmela
Casa Carmela is an independent, family business, now in its fourth generation and this year they're celebrating their centenary. (Thanks for the recommendation Daniella @danddob !)
Located by the beach, near the centre of Valencia, we drive there directly from the airport. It's late November, so the beach and parking lots are empty. As we come within a block we're hit by a strong waft of orange wood smoke and seafood. It's a big venue and busy. On the way to the table, we walk past a bank of wood fires, tended by a team of chefs with ten large paella pans on the go.
There is a variety of different paella. We'd hoped to order the classic Paella Valenciana as our first experience here, but it's not possible because pre-order is required and we weren't that organised! So we take our waiter's recommendation and go for the Deep Red Cardinal Prawns Paella (€59 for 2 sharing).
We'd been told by a Spanish friend that in Valencia, the word "paella" is only used to refer to Paella Valenciana. That is, a meat based paella with chicken, rabbit and snails. The seafood variation, we were told, is called Arroz de Marisco (Seafood Rice). All the same, we notice that it is listed, on the Spanish language menu as Paella de Marisco.
When the paella arrives, three things strike us:
The rice is much more thinly spread across the pan than we are used to. It's less than a finger width deep.
There are just two prawns (one per person).
Whilst there is other fish included, there are no mussels or clams in our pan, or in any of the other seafood pans being served at other tables
Our waiter is exceptional. We have literally 20 questions and he patiently answers them all. He also presents us with a fresh wooden spoon and demonstrates how to scrape the best bits of the paella from the bottom of the pan. Socarrar means "to scorch" and the layer on the bottom of the pan is called the socarrat. It's the caramelised rice at the bottom of the pan where the stock has evaporated and, for many, it's the best part.
We want to know what people typically drink with paella. Casa Carmela specialises in wine, and we go for O Luar Do Sil, Godello Sobre Lías. But from a quick scan of the room it seems that some people are equally happy with a beer.
By the end of the meal, it's clear we needn't have worried about making the minimum €40 spend per head as we've racked up double. If paella does have its roots as a humble, working class dish, it seems that it's now made it onto the fine dining menu!
Day 2 - Ca Pepico
We're staying in the central Old Town. After spending the morning visiting the Central Food Market we go for a long run along the dry river bed. After, we're looking forward to the evening, when we'll be meeting Jon, a good friend and running legend from Brighton, living in Valencia with his Spanish partner. We'd put the same challenge to him, to recommend the best paella restaurant in Valencia. His Spanish friends were unanimous: it's Ca Pepico.
Ca Pepico is a 25 minute drive from the city centre north, along the coast, 400m from the sea. When we arrive, it feels like a ghost town - a small village surrounded by farmland and not much sign of life. There's a glow coming from just one, corner building and, as we open the door, I'm instantly all smiles. It's a hidden gem. We're early, but there is already a scattering of people across the restaurant and a lovely warmth. Ca Pepico also has a 100 year heritage and we are served, directly by one of the family. It feels homely, authentic, intimate and all the guests seem to be speaking Spanish. The waiting staff do not speak English. It's a good sign.
We start with razor clams (which are heavenly) and have pre-ordered seafood paella (€36 for two people sharing). The staff are amused and ask us if it's normal in England to eat paella in the evening. No one else is eating paella. The reason is because it's is a heavy dish, so only really eaten at lunchtime.
Whilst we're waiting, we ask if we can go into the kitchen and see it being cooked. We can. It's a similar scale to The Urchin kitchen. We notice that it's cooked on a single gas burner and wonder if we'll miss the orange wood smoke infusion (spoiler: we don't). The rice is dark with caramelised stock. One langoustine and one prawn per person. Again, no mussels or clams in sight. It's delicious.
After the meal, we're invited for a private tour of the wine cellar. Although this is another specialist wine venue, Ca Pepico also offer, on tap, local favourite, Turia - a toasted lager. We start with beer and follow with a glass of Rueda Verdejo.
Day 3 - Ca Patxi, Port of Gandia
Today, we head out of the city to the nearby fishing port of Gandia. We've read that Gandia is the birthplace of a variation on paella: fideuá. Legend has it that fideuá was conceived by the cook on a fishing boat from Gandia who had had enough of the captain eating all the seafood paella. In an attempt to make the dish less appealing, he swapped the rice for fine pasta noodles. To his surprise, the innovation was an instant hit and it soon became a staple at restaurants around the port.
We're too late for lunch, so decide to book for dinner at Ca Patxi, located right by the main fish market. But when we arrive, we're told that it is not possible to eat fideuá in the evening. And even at lunch, it needs to be pre-ordered in advance. So we console ourselves with some of the best shell-on scallops we've ever tasted.
Fideuá will have to wait for another day.
Day 4 - Iggy and Boni's garden (near Alicante)
We start the day with a refreshing dip in the sea, then we're off towards Alicante. After 4 years living in Canada, Iggy is back in Spain with his partner Boni. Inevitably, it's Sunday lunchtime, but we're ready for a break from paella! Instead, Iggy and Boni treat us to a barbeque in their beautiful garden along with some of the largest local mussels we've ever seen.
Over lunch, we discuss what makes true, authentic paella. There ensues a passionate debate between Iggy and Boni ranging from whether peas are an acceptable addition, to what spices are essential and whether you can even call it "seafood paella". There is no agreement. Except on one thing: paella is a time for family and friends to come together, typically on a Sunday, all sharing from the same dish.
So our final question is answered. Paella is always served in pans for two or more people because it is a signal that it's time to come together. It's a celebration of community, friendship and family.