I thought I knew something about rice. Then I travelled to southeastern Spain.
In early winter, I had lunch at a simple restaurant called Paco Gandía in the hilly wine country of Alicante province. It was a life-altering experience, certainly changing my perspective on the possibilities of rice and the meaning of “paella.”
I didn’t get there by accident. I came for lunch with members of the Gil family of Gil Family Estates—best known for their powerful Cabernet-Monastrell blends from their boutique El Nido winery in Murcia province to the south.
“Rice is my favorite meal,” said Miguel Gil, who compares all paella (both the Valencian word for “pan” and the name for the rice preparations from around the area) to that of his late mother.
Paco Gandía, in the modest town of Pinoso (pop. about 7,500), attracts winemakers from the region and food lovers from across Spain. It was once declared the best paella in the world by Spain’s most famous avant-garde chef, Ferran Adrià of the now-defunct El Bulli. The restaurant serves one humble paella, made with rabbit and snails over a hearth fire fueled by year-old vine cuttings.
This, according to some purists, resembles the original recipe from the Valencia countryside of the 19th century. That was before it migrated to the coast and seafood was added—and before it became bastardized into the modern surf‘n’turf jumble you can find most anywhere in the world today.
“No! No! No!” Gandía said when I mention paella with chicken and shellfish. “That would be like mixing a good wine with soda water.”
Gandía and his wife, Josefa Navarro, who begins preparing her rabbit broth at 5 a.m. every day, have been running the restaurant as a duo for 33 years.
“It is a dish that is poor and elaborate at the same time,” said Gandía, leading me back to the kitchen where Josefa stood guard over a pair of large round pans licked by flames from bushels of vine cuttings. The contents of the pans boiled and sizzled as the air filled with the smell of slightly sweet vine smoke, which flavors the rice.
“If you make the flame too high, you burn the paella,” Gandía explains. “If you put the pan too low, you kill the flames.”
After appetizers like scrambled eggs with blood sausage and liver with onions, Gandía brought out the paella in a large, hot, round pan he set in the middle of the table. We all dug into the thin layer of yellow saffron rice, dotted with snails and pieces of rabbit.
A new one on me, we used paella forks—sturdy, short-tined, half-spoon utensils made for both scooping paella and scraping the crisped layer of rice, called “soccarat,” from the bottom of the pan.
Gandía demonstrated the technique of vigorous paella scraping, then puts a helping of the crust on my plate.
“It’s the best part,” he said.
It was. The crunch of caramelized soccarat, the rustic flavors of rabbit and snails, and the perfume of saffron and vine smoke melded into a pure pastoral feast that paired perfectly with concentrated reds—the more Monastrell the better.
I later checked in with Valencia area culinary star Quique Dacosta, who has perfected a dish of soccarat without the paella—sort of like making bread crust without the loaf—at his signature, 3 Michelin–star, avant-garde restaurant in the Alicante city of Dénia.
At 46, Dacosta has thought a lot about rice: He has written a book on contemporary rice, has four restaurants in Valencia, and is opening a rice restaurant called Arros (rice in Valencian dialect) QD in London this coming May.
“Soccarat is a defect of the paella that has developed into a virtue,” said Dacosta philosophically, before he went into the chemistry of rice, fat, broth and fire.
In the Valencia region, which is famous for its short-grained rices brought there by Arabs in the 8th century and grown for centuries in the Albufera wetlands, “Everyone has a different version of paella—everywhere you go.”
The varied recipes came from a time of scarcity when people used what was at hand to flavor their rice, Dacosta explained. From province to province and town to town, there are debates not only about which cultivar of rice to use and what the essential ingredients are (fresh beans were also a traditional component of the dish) but even about how and when the broth is prepared and when the rice is added.
“Paella is so deep a tradition here that, if you cook the beans in it more or less, someone will argue with you,” he said. “Every day there is a debate on paella—it is a matter of state.”
I don’t know about you, my friends, but rice preparation is my kind of debate.