IberiaNature A guide to the natural history and food of Spain

Rice & Pasta in Spain

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Spain 's most famous dish is undoubtedly paella , of which there are many varieties. The common ingredients are rice, saffron, garlic, onions, peppers and tomatoes, but beyond these basics there are many alternatives. A paella mixta will probably feature prawns, mussels, squid, chicken and pork, while a paella de marisco will contain only shellfish. A paella de mar y montaña will probably involve fish and game, while a paella de verduras should be purely vegetarian. It can be served as a first course or as the main course of a meal, for lunch or supper, and in posh restaurants or cooked over an open fire in the countryside.

The name paella actually refers to the shallow flat dish in which it is cooked, which can vary in circumference according to how may people are going to consume the contents. Most restaurants offering paella as a main course will set up an extra table beside the diners to accommodate it. Nowadays most modern paellas are made of steel, although older iron or ceramic ones are still sold in tourist shops.

The first rule about paella is that it must be freshly cooked. After even an hour or so, the rice can become sticky and unpleasant. Beware of any restaurant offering the dish for less than two people, as it is simply not worth the chef's time to cook a fresh paella for one, and a single ration probably comes from a larger paella which may have been sitting for hours. This unfortunate experience is unlikely to occur to anyone having paella as a main course, but it is inadvisable to have paella as a first course late in the day. Traditionally, paella is served as a first course on Thursday lunchtimes, and it is best to order it before 15:00 unless the restaurant makes a point of announcing a second batch.

Within Spain the best paella is always said to be that made in Valencia , but there seems to be a surprising amount of controversy about what a true paella valenciana actually contains. Most agree that giant garrafón beans are an essential ingredient, but whether it otherwise features only meat, only seafood or a mixture of both is not settled. A Valencian friend of mine assures me that when she was a child it was common to put in frogs' legs and snails sold by street vendors fresh from the marshes, but I have never come across these in a paella . She is a good cook, and not the only one to toss in some freshwater crabs into her version.

My personal favourite is a good paella mixta , described above; the mixture of flavours is sublime. Like many other apparently simple Spanish dishes, it is remarkable how much this dish can vary according to the cook. The exact amount of oil to heat, how to gauge the precise temperature it must reach before throwing in the garlic, the order in which the ingredients go in and the time required for each to sizzle, the amount of salt to sprinkle, the minimum level of water and then if any needs adding to keep it from boiling, how long it will take for the rice to absorb the water, how to prevent the rice from either burning or getting soggy, how to achieve that perfect film of delicious bubbly sauce barely covering the surface of the dish, or just shimmering between the grains of almost fluffy rice; all these are matters of expert judgement and timing..

The shellfish present something of an almost ethical issue. Are they worth the hassle? Well, even the smallest shrimps add greatly to the overall flavour of the paella, but peeled ones just wouldn't work half as well; the main contribution probably comes from the gunge in the head, which many Spaniards like to suck out; I find it a bit too rich. The amount of meat that can be extracted from the body armour is often miniscule. If you are French you have probably been trained since birth to perform this operation blindfolded, twirling a fork elegantly with one hand while sipping wine from a glass held in the other, but the rest of us have to resort, very messily, to our fingers. On the other hand, our fingers are delicious to lick afterwards.

I have seen paellas served with langosta and even boguevante , which seems rather excessive, but it is more common to find one or two large escarmelans on your plate. These are very spiky creatures and I normally leave them till the end of the meal, when there is more elbowroom available to address them.

While I do not approve of squeezing lemon juice all over a good paella, it does have strategic uses with mussels and on the final few bites of meaty shellfish, a highlight to finish off the feast.

Sitting in a scenic country spot with a glass of wine and watching Spanish family members preparing a paella over an open fire in a shallow pit is rather like attending a choreographed performance of gender roles; I suppose the same could be said about Americans or Australians or British or even Irish people at a barbecue.

Arroz a la banda, Arrós negre , Arrós a la cassola , Arrós empordanes



Pasta is widely regarded as an Italian speciality of Chinese origin, but it is put to excellent uses in this country.

Italian dishes are popular, and many restaurant menus will feature spaghetti, tortellini, lasagne etc. as a matter of course (usually first). Spellings are hispanicised and, rather disconcertingly, the Italian plural endings are usually plurified again, producing "spaguetis", "linguinis", "ñoquis" etc. The sauces are also recognisably named, "a la boloñesa", "carbonara", "al pesto" and so on. Catalans are particularly fond of "Canelonis Rossini"; the meat stuffing is traditionally made from sheep brains.

Maravilla, Galets, Fideos



Francis Barrett's Deconstruction of Catalan and Spanish Food

See aslo a brief guide to Catalan food by Simon Rice


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