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Paella and rice dishes: a user guide

Ask any tourist "what is Spain's national dish?" and nine times out of ten I bet the answer will be "paella!" But our part of Spain (the Comunidad Valenciana) is the real home of rice dishes and where you'll find the genuine article. The raw material comes from the rice fields around Valencia. And of course, Villajoyosa's fishing fleet supplies another key ingredient: great seafood.

A paella dish is delicious, very filling and also great value, especially if it comes as part of a menu del dia (menu of the day), which in La Vila usually features a rice dish (arroz) as one of the main courses. And there are plenty of different kinds to choose from.

Try arroz abanda: a typical dish of the area (right). The rice is cooked using fish stock, with added pieces of squid (calamar), cuttlefish (sepia) and maybe tuna (atún). You sometimes see it called arroz del senyoret. The traditional yellow colour comes from saffron added to the rice; most of the saffron comes from La Mancha in central Spain.

The minimum order for any rice dish is usually two people, as the arroz is prepared in a large round metal pan called a paellera, which ensures the rice is cooked evenly. Some restaurants will do portions for one person, but by no means all.

In the best places, the hot paellera should be brought to the table so you can see the dish is freshly made. Ask the waiter to leave it in the middle and dig in. That way, you get to pinch the socarrat; the crusty, slightly burned rice at the centre of the pan that you get when the paella is cooked just right. Delicious!

Paella chefs use a short grain rice (usually bomba) which simply soaks up all the flavour from the fish stock, but doesn't fall apart as it cooks. Arroz snobs might tell you that calasparra rice from Murcia, the next province along from Alicante, is where they grow the best rice. But who's arguing? To make it even tastier, your arroz is usually served with ali oli, a garlic mayonnaise, and wedges of lemon.

A quick guide to the different kinds of paella

A paella marinera or paella de marisco will contain plenty of seafood, a valenciana will also contain chicken. A paella mixta (the clue is in the name) will have a mixture of fish, seafood, chicken and maybe peppers or beans. Definitely not chorizo (spicy sausage) though; Jamie Oliver almost caused an international incident when his recipe included it. Proper paella fans were horrified!

You'll sometimes see a paella negra with black rice, coloured with squid ink. The traditional paella vilera (paella from Villajoyosa) features rabbit (conejo), chick peas (garbanzos) and may even include snails (caracoles).

Arroz al horno de leña, Restaurante Xiri, Monóvar

Travel a few kilometres inland to sample "arroz al horno de leña" (rice cooked in a wood oven). Prepared in an earthenware bowl, rather than the traditional metal paellera, it contains potatoes, morcilla (black pudding), a whole bulb of garlic, tomatoes, chicken, pork and chick peas and probably anything else that takes the cook's fancy on the day. Not a fish nor a gamba in sight. The one above came from Restaurante Xiri in Monóvar.

Vegetarians can request an arroz/paella de verduras (vegetables) in most places, although be warned; the rice itself may have been cooked in fish stock (caldo de pescado). If in doubt, ask your waiter.

Different paella styles

The classic paella is sometimes called un arroz seco (literally, "a dry rice") because the rice has absorbed pretty much all of the stock. Then there's arroz caldoso (below), best translated as rice served in a kind of soup or stock. There's also arroz meloso, which is creamier.

Take a look at this great website called Wikipaella, run by a group of Valencian paella fans. There is an interactive map (link here) where you can search for a recommended paella restaurant near you, or even for the style of arroz you prefer.

Where to eat paella in Villajoyosa

Most restaurants around Villajoyosa will feature rice dishes. But these are our favourites: El Hogar del Pescador (pricey, but one of the best in town, served in a great location overlooking the marina), Ca Marta (pretty good, not so expensive), Club Nàutic (order the rice dish on the menu del dia and get a great view from the terrace thrown in). All three are near the port. On the seafront in the old town: La Marina and El Madrid (good menus del dia, great value for money). In the town centre, try Tres14 on Calle Colón near the tourist office.

For help translating any Spanish fish or seafood menu, take a look at my blog here.

Click here for more posts about Villajoyosa, or to see our beautiful seafront apartment, click here

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© Guy Pelham 2017


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