Friday, 30 April 2010

Paella: fine dining or just a picnic in the park

A recent guest of Los Castaños set off for Ronda one evening in search specifically of a paella for dinner. Startled by their choice, I really wanted to advise them that this was not a good idea. At best they would find a mass-produced, frozen facsimile at an unexciting pizza cafe. I would rather have shared with them my list of selected restaurants where they would experience the best of Spain, not the worst.

The problem is that paella abroad is perceived as Spain´s national dish and, along with bullfighting, flamenco and tapas, defines the nation. But for the Andalucians, paella is a dish for outside: a picnic, a street fair, a family garden party. The only sort of restaurant where any self-respecting Spaniard would order paella would be at a venta on a Sunday lunchtime Traditional ventas are rough and ready sort of eating establishments located outside a town and, it is said, traditionally run by gypsies who prefered to stay separate and were encouraged by non-gypsies to do so.

In their homes Andalucian ladies cook ärroz¨which may or may not contain some meat such as chicken. Rice is an everyday, almost nursery sort of dish. To illustrate, when Los Castanos was under construction and Christmas came around, I wanted to treat the ten or so builders to a Christmas meal. Under the same misconception as my recent guest, I suggested to our local hostelry that he make a big paella for them thinking it would be a special treat.

¨Rice¨, shrieked Baltasar. ¨They have rice every day. It is NOT a special treat.¨

When travelling in Spain, save the paella (pronounced pah-eh-ya and never pie-ella which is as uncouth as calling San Francisco Frisco!) for back home. Unless you are lucky enough to get invited to an Andalucian picnic or come across a paella being cooked at a feria such as Cartajima´s August feria when it features on the menu of one of the street lunches provided by the town hall.


  1. Very interesting story, and I guess you never made that mistake again? Although Paella is wonderful, you're right it is a common sort of dish. Actually I live just up the street from one of the Gitana neighbourhoods in Ronda and Paella is a definite favourite amongst them, and as you suggest, they cook in the street with all the family and neighbours welcome to join them.

    San Rafael in the poligono actually sells 1 metre round paella dishes, so anyone who visits and wants to take one home......

  2. I have wonderful memories of paella at roof raising parties, as a child. My father was an architect and worked in Andalusia in the 70s. When the roof of a new house was competed, the workmen would have a party to celebrate. They built a fire and made paella, using rabbit, and it was wonderful. These were very special events and my sister and I were always very excited if we were allowed to come along. We had a wild time, while the 'grownups were busy having fun'. Whenever I visit Los Castanos I always ask to see if I can persuade Di to cook her version. Sometimes I even succeed! They are always very good.


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