A Primer on Paella
Paella is a Catalan word that derives from the Old French word paelle for pan, which in turn comes from the Latin word patella for pan.  Paella is a Valencian rice dish that originated in its modern form in the mid-19th century near Lake Albufera, a lagoon in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain.  Most non-Spaniards view paella as Spain’s national dish.  However, most Spaniards consider it to be a regional Valencian dish. Valencians, in turn, regard paella as one of their identifying symbols.

Socarrat

Finding paella in Barcelona is no more difficult than walking down the street.  That being said, not all paella is created (or should I say, cooked) equally.  In fact, most paella you encounter in Barcelona is geared towards tourists (read: under or overcooked rice, no saffron — hello yellow dye number 2; if the paella is lacking the subtle aroma of saffron, then you have a fake) and forgettable.  One Barcelona native I chatted with compared the paella on Barcelona’s La Rambla to a TV dinner.  A few things to keep in mind when seeking quality paella: If you go to a restaurant and mention the word socarrat and the staff look at you quizzically and/or inform you that they bake their paella in the oven, turn around and walk out the door.  There is better paella to be found.

You might be asking yourself, what the heck is socarrat?  Socarrat refers to the crispy, savory crust that forms on the the bottom layer of rice when the paella is cooked properly.  The socarrat is achieved by turning up the heat in the final minutes of cooking.  You’ll know within the first few bites if the socarrat is present.  Also, do not let your server dish out the paella onto individual plates.  Paella should be served in its pan, lest you lose the coveted socarrat.

Cooking paella requires a wide shallow pan and a strong heat source that can be distributed uniformly on the bottom of the paella pan.  Ideally, the best heat source for cooking paella is an open fire fueled by vine cuttings or citrus or olive tree trimmings.  Given that most people do not have access to vine cuttings and a blazing wood fire, an open heat source such as a stove top, charcoal grill, or even a freestanding propane or butane burner (as seen below) will work.

It is not uncommon for restaurants to cook paella in the oven to speed up the cooking process. Unfortunately, developing the socarrat — considered by many to be the past part of paella — in the oven is difficult.

We actually walked out of one restaurant in Barcelona after the paella was brought to our table: A soupy paella with overcooked rice and lacking any trace of socarrat.  Both the waiter and owner looked confused when we mentioned the lack of soccarat and responded, “Soccarrat, we have not heard of such a word.”  At the time, I felt slightly bad about walking out, but it was our last day in Spain and not how I wanted to remember paella.  Undeterred, we walked over to Xiringuito d’ Escriba, located along the Mediterranean Sea, where the paella is very good.

Seafood Paella

This is the seafood paella from Xiringuito d’ Escriba.  You can see the socarrat in the paella below; the layer of rice is very thin and has a nice carmalized, golden brown hue.  We chatted with the paella master for a while; unlike some other establishments, she spoke at length about socarrat, smiled, and pulled out a big bag of bomba rice, an ingredient that clearly sets a good paella apart (see below for more information on bomba rice).

The below paella is from Casa Cheriff in Barcelona.  Casa Cheriff was recommended to us by some locals enjoying a walk through La Barceloneta as we we wandered around looking for a place to have dinner.  This one was good, but not my favorite.

And the winner is…
The paella that won me over came from the small town of Combarro in Galicia.  Our waiter insisted that we order the Arroz Marinero (frutas del mar y pescado).  Although hesitant at first, I’m glad we heeded his advice because this dish was incredible.  It was loaded with seafood — mejillones (mussels), langostinos, chipirones, pulpo, almejas (clams), navajas (razor clams) and rape (monkfish) — but the rice also had a nice socarrat that seemed to cover the entire bottom of the pan.  Not sure how the chef created such a sublime dish, but I wish I knew.  This is a paella that I will dream about for years to come.  I would tell you the name of the place, but I think it will remain my secret for the time being.  Oh, what the heck, the restaurant is called El Caracol (but let’s keep that between you and me).

Meat Paella
While we sampled a handful of seafood paellas, I was eager to try the more traditional paella of Valencia, typically consisting of rabbit, snails, and chicken.  However, in Barcelona and the coastal towns of Galicia, this was difficult to find.  Many places had a meat paella on the menu, but it was usually pork and chicken. Again, another reason to return to Spain, next time with a stop in Valencia to savor paella with snails and rabbit.
Bomba Rice
The best rice for making paella is a Spanish, short-grain rice called bomba rice.  What makes bomba rice superior for paella is the fact that it expands in width like an accordion, rather than longitudinally, which allows it to absorb three times its volume in broth, yet the rice remains firm.

In the end, you might have to pay a little more for better ingredients and the care that goes into making a high quality paella, but I guarantee it will be the difference between a mediocre meal and a memorable one.
In addition to a bag of bomba rice, we managed to find room in our bags for a couple of other food items: two bottles of wine  (mencia from Ribeira Sacra, priorat), five bottles of extra virgin olive oil, one jar of anchovies, one jar of piquillo peppers, one jar of salsa de chipiron (squid ink sauce), two links of spicy chorizo, and a couple of bars of chocolate.

(“Umm, no Mr. Custom’s Officer, I do not have any food in my bag”).

Time to do some cooking, paella anyone??  I will be doing some experimenting with paella in the upcoming months, stay tuned.

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7 comments

Reply

Oh salsa de chipiron! THAT is heaven in a jar…

You are so right about Bomba brand calasparra rice- an absolute must for proper paella. My wife and I have our own personal "National Paella Day" in which-every year- I make her a paella. You can see it here with pletny pics and how to make:

http://foodsoftheworld.activeboards.net/forum_posts.asp?TID=22&title=paella

Reply

Oh salsa de chipiron! THAT is heaven in a jar…

You are so right about Bomba brand calasparra rice- an absolute must for proper paella. My wife and I have our own personal "National Paella Day" in which-every year- I make her a paella. You can see it here with pletny pics and how to make:

http://foodsoftheworld.activeboards.net/forum_posts.asp?TID=22&title=paella

Reply

Rivet, checked out your link, your paella looks amazing. Have you made fideos? Want to make some with rabbit and snails, but first have to track down those ingredients.

Reply

Beautiful blog and beautiful paellas! I've scouring your reviews while planning for my coming trip at the end of the year.

I went on to find more about El Xiringuito on the web after reading about it here. On your pictures it looks amazing – the rice barely 1 grain deep and the socarrat is clearly visible on the pan. Yet, on tripadvisor.com as well as on bcnrestaurantes.com the reviews are almost shockingly bad. Have you heard of any news of the restaurant since your last visit? Perhaps there has been a change of ownership or something in that grain.

Reply

Beautiful blog and beautiful paellas! I've scouring your reviews while planning for my coming trip at the end of the year.

I went on to find more about El Xiringuito on the web after reading about it here. On your pictures it looks amazing – the rice barely 1 grain deep and the socarrat is clearly visible on the pan. Yet, on tripadvisor.com as well as on bcnrestaurantes.com the reviews are almost shockingly bad. Have you heard of any news of the restaurant since your last visit? Perhaps there has been a change of ownership or something in that grain.

Reply

It's been 2 years, but what really stood out to me with El Xiringuito's paella was the way the rice was cooked–the socarrat. The seafood itself may not have been the best of all the paellas I sampled. That being said, I'm not sure that paella is the best thing to be found in Barcelona. My favorite places to eat in Barcelona were Bar Mut, El Quim, and Xampanyet. Didn't make it to Suquet de l'Almirall, but have heard good things. Not sure if you are going any where else in Spain, but there is a plethora of good food in San Sebastian and extraordinary seafood to be found in Galicia. Happy travels.

Reply

It's been 2 years, but what really stood out to me with El Xiringuito's paella was the way the rice was cooked–the socarrat. The seafood itself may not have been the best of all the paellas I sampled. That being said, I'm not sure that paella is the best thing to be found in Barcelona. My favorite places to eat in Barcelona were Bar Mut, El Quim, and Xampanyet. Didn't make it to Suquet de l'Almirall, but have heard good things. Not sure if you are going any where else in Spain, but there is a plethora of good food in San Sebastian and extraordinary seafood to be found in Galicia. Happy travels.

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