Paella is more than merely a food in Spain, it is a ritual, a symbol of family and community and fellowship. When I visited Valencia, the home of paella, I asked around to see what restaurant I should go to try it, and I didn’t get anywhere because the answer to where the best paella is was always “my aunts”, “my grandpas”, or in my host dad´s case…. His wife’s mother´s best friend. Paella is a food that has to be eaten in community… it is made to be shared and enjoyed by many, and even the smallest of paella pans will feed a whole family. Recipes are passed down generations and swapped between the closest of friends. Whether enjoyed in the countryside, at the shore, in the home, or at a restaurant, good paella is less about the food and more about the experience. Here are the stories of 3 different pans of paella.
Pan 1: This weekend my host dad, César taught Kristina, Amalie, and I how to make Paella de Marisco. This time we cooked it in our apartment, but he prefers to make it over an open fire at the ocean, buy all the seafood from a local market, and enjoy it with large amounts of family and friends. The recipe is basic, but the technique is complicated. All the seafood is pan seared in olive oil, especially the shells and parts that aren’t edible, and then removed from the pan, with the intention of leaving the seafood flavor in the oil. The squid, shrimp, mussels, and clams are all cooked one by one before anything else. Then it’s time to add in the rice. My host family saves all the water they use to cook fish in throughout the month, and uses that water to boil the rice. After the rice is fully cooked, we added in saffron and rosemary, and put the seafood back into the pan. Then, we hastily set the table because César told us that we had a 10 minute window to eat the paella in for it to taste the best.
We feasted on paella, aged cheese, bread, pear dulce, and marzipan as a family, and it was lovely. Bela, my host mom, said it was our Spanish thanksgiving, and it really was. I am incredibly thankful for my Spanish family, my roommate here, and my roommate from home, and sharing a special meal of paella with them was something I will never forget.
Pans 2 & 3: A few days later, my friend Dan’s parents took us out to dinner at this amazing restaurant called Casa Benigna. The restaurant is famous for its paella, but more famous for its chef and owner, Norberto Jorge. We soon discovered why. Although his team of chefs prepare all his recipes on their own, he still commutes over an hour every day just to talk with customers and get to know their stories. His 91 year old mother lives above the restaurant and spends her evenings greeting patrons and writing in a big, antique looking book. After guiding us through one of the best meals of my life and describing how each dish was made, he showed my roommate and I around the open kitchen and began telling us his story.
His dad was a tailor, and he was the first one with a college degree in his family. He studied in Madrid when he was young, and he and his mother started their first restaurant in La Escorial. After it won a Michelin star, he decided to start another one in Madrid. He has his own line of olive oil and balsamic reduction, and let me just tell you, I could drink that stuff.
He told us it took him 62 years to find joy and life to the full. He comes to his restaurant every night even though he doesn’t have to, because he loves to know people and share stories and conversation. He found joy and peace through spirituality and love for people. No amount of accomplishment or money or Michelin stars would satisfy him, but stories and conversation and spirituality did. He invited us back to watch him make paella sometimes, and we plan on returning, if not to learn to cook, then to simply listen.