“I am the mechanic of the rice!” declares Quique Dacosta, the Spanish chef who’s won enough Michelin stars to decorate his downstairs loo. “When you have an issue with your car, the mechanic can tell you what is wrong just by listening to the motor. It is a little bit the same for me and rice – just by looking at it, I know the family and the type of rice it is!”
We’re in Arros QD – Quique’s first restaurant outside Spain is an oasis of tranquillity in Fitzrovia, just beyond the Armageddon of Oxford Street.
“Have you eaten paella lately?” asks Quique. I recall a supermarket ready meal with lumps of chicken that could compete with conkers, and rice that restricted the use of my oesophagus. “Not lately,” I say, keeping a lid on this.
“OK, but you have eaten it? What did you use, a spoon or a fork?” Mildly paranoid that Quique’s been doing undercover intel, I blush like a beacon and admit it was a spoon.
“That’s correct! That’s how you should eat it. A lot of people eat paella with a fork, but traditionally, you eat it with a spoon!” I am jolly pleased to have smashed this aspect of culinary etiquette, and I do not spoil the moment by telling Quique I eat everything like this.
Emphatic that I must pronounce it “pie-YAY-a” Quique reveals that this is actually the name of the pan that’s used. “The word paella is from Valencia and traditionally it’s what we call the container itself. The recipe is also strongly from Valencia, and it’s made with chicken, rabbit, Garrofon, which is a white Spanish bean, and rosemary.”
With a passion that’s usually accompanied by a sword being drawn for a duel, Quique tells me fiercely: “Only a Paella Valenciana is allowed to be called a paella. Anything you do with that container outside of Valencia is not called a paella – it’s a rice dish!”
OK, so if I were to cook a, uh, rice dish, what would I need to know? Quique gives me his top tips:
Pan Handle Me
Use a rustproof paella pan that’s not damaged or scratched. It should be at least 50cm for four people, and 40cm for two people. There are two different types of paella pan – one that you use on the fire, which has a thin layer of metal on the bottom, and one for use at home over gas. This will have integrated diffusers that go from the core to the edge of the dish, allowing the heat to be distributed evenly. It must have two handles because paella is a convivial sharing dish, and one handle won’t give you enough stability to bring it to the table.
Rice Handle Me
The most common mistake is using the wrong kind of rice. Many people think that rice is all the same, but it’s not. You’d use a particular kind of oranges to make marmalade – it’s the same with rice for paella. In Spain, we use a rice called Senia which is cultivated specifically for the paella. In the UK, the best rice to use is Bomba. If you try to use the Bomba rice to make sushi, or sushi rice to make a paella, it’s not going to work, so it’s always important to use the right rice.
Chuck out the Chorizo
In Spain, chorizo is served with black pudding and spicy peppers – never in paella! People often have their own interpretations of paella outside of Spain, and as chorizo is a very strong Spanish product, it’s understandable that the two are put together, but there is no paella recipe, anywhere in Spain, which contains chorizo. A Spanish person would find it very strange if you told them you put chorizo in your paella!
In Valencia and Alicante where the rice is grown, the local wine is Monastrell, which is strong and intense, with a high alcohol content – this goes very well with the flavours of the paella. However, you can also enjoy it with high tannin wines from South America, Bordeaux, Italy and other parts of Spain. Champagne, G&T, and white wine (particularly if the paella is made with fish) all get a tick from Quique.
Traditionally, paella is put in the middle of the table and eaten straight from the dish, so if there are four people around the table, there’s a quarter for each person. The symmetry of the ingredients is never perfect, so some people will get more meat, and other people will get more vegetables. You never know who will get what – it just depends what’s in front of you when the dish is put down. This is part of the fun, and if you want something that’s in someone else’s section, you must ask their permission. The sections aren’t marked, but you know each grain of rice that belongs to you. Never help yourself to anything in someone else’s section – this would be taken very personally in Valencia!
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