Question – what’s the best known dish in Spain? Answer – paella (probably!) And our part of eastern Spain – the Comunidad Valenciana – is where you’ll find the real thing.
The raw material for paella comes from the rice fields around Valencia. And the fishing fleet in our town – Villajoyosa, near Alicante – supplies another key ingredient: great seafood.
You’ll often see paella called arroz (simply ‘rice’) on local menus. That’s because there’s actually a whole range of rice dishes to choose from, not just paella. So here’s a guide to the best arroz in Spain.
Paella de Mariscos, made with cigalas (langoustines/Dublin Bay Prawns) and gambas (prawns)
Rice dishes tick three boxes: they’re delicious, they’re very filling and also great value, especially if they come as part of a menu del dia (menu of the day), served every weekday in Spanish restaurants.
The minimum order for any rice dish is usually two people, as the rice is prepared in a large round metal pan – 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. Tip: ask the waiter to leave it in the middle and dig in. That way, you get to pinch the socarrat; the crusty, slightly burned bit at the centre of the pan that you get when the rice is cooked just right. Delicious!
Valencian chefs use a short grain rice (usually bomba) which soaks up all the flavour from the fish stock, but doesn’t fall apart as it cooks. Arroz aficionados might tell you that calasparra rice from Murcia, the next province along from Alicante, is the best. 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; Brit celebrity chef Jamie Oliver almost caused an international incident when his recipe included it. Proper paella fans were horrified!
A paella negra has black rice, coloured with squid ink.
The traditional paella vilera (paella from here in Villajoyosa/La Vila Joiosa) features rabbit (conejo), chick peas (garbanzos) and may even include snails (caracoles).
Try arroz a banda: a typical rice dish of the area around Alicante. The rice is cooked using fish stock, with added pieces (tropezones) of squid (calamar), cuttlefish (sepia) and maybe tuna (atún). You sometimes see it called arroz del senyoret.
Top quality rice (arroz abanda), El Hogar del Pescador
You could really push the boat out and order a caldero de pescado. First you’ll be served a fish stew, and while you’re eating that, the stock from your stew will be used to cook arroz a banda. Don’t plan on doing anything energetic afterwards; it’s very filling!
Saffron: the most expensive spice on earth
The traditional golden colour comes from saffron added to the rice; most of the saffron comes from La Mancha in central Spain. The good stuff is seriously pricey – just half a gram of azafrán manchego can cost €5 – but for that money you get enough saffron threads for several paellas.
Beware cheap paella places using turmeric food colouring instead. Look at the rice other people are eating – if it’s too yellow, be very suspicious.
Arroz al horno de leña
Travel a few kilometres inland from Villajoyosa to sample “arroz al horno de leña“ (rice cooked in a wood oven). Often 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 pescado nor a gamba in sight. The one below came from Restaurante Xiri in Monóvar, half an hour’s drive inland from Alicante.
Rice cooked in a wood oven (arroz al horno de leña). Prepared in an earthenware bowl, it’s a typical country rice dish. No fish or seafood involved.
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.
Try also fideuà, cooked the same way as paella but with noodles instead of rice, a dish originally from Gandia up the coast towards Valencia.
Different paella styles
The classic paella is sometimes called un arroz seco (literally, “a dry rice”) because the rice has absorbed all the fish stock.
Then there’s arroz caldoso, best translated as rice served in a thick stock (the caldo). There’s also arroz meloso, which is creamier.
Take a look at this 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.
Wikipaella will point you towards the good stuff. But there’s also plenty of awful paella around, especially in tourist hotspots.
Rubbish paella – and how to avoid it
- Have a look at what other people are eating. Does the rice look wet and shiny? Probably because it hasn’t absorbed all the stock. The chef (if that’s the right word) is in too much of a hurry, or…more likely…doesn’t know what he/she is doing.
- It’s too yellow. The odds are that genuine saffron hasn’t been used, as I mentioned earlier. Probably cheap food colouring instead. Saffron is expensive and turns the rice a mellow golden colour.
- You never get to see the paellera, the paella pan. This probably means that they cook the rice in a big batch out the back, and simply scoop it onto your plate. Or it’s been frozen and warmed up in the microwave.
- There’s pizza on the same menu! Avoid at all costs!
Where to eat rice in Villajoyosa
Most restaurants in Villajoyosa/La Vila Joiosa feature rice dishes. But these are our favourites:
- Near the port: El Hogar del Pescador: pricey, but one of the best in town, served in a great location overlooking the marina
- Ca Marta very good quality rice here, not as expensive as El Hogar. Eat on the terrace or go inside for a greater choice of rice dishes.
- Club Nàutic order the rice dish on the menu del dia and get a great view from the terrace thrown in
- On the seafront in the old town: La Marina and El Madrid (good menus del dia, great value for money).
- In the town centre, Tres14 on Calle Colón near the tourist office is excellent. Their cooking style is ‘cuina de barco’ (shipboard cooking), trying to recreate the way arroz would have been cooked at sea back in the day. The ship’s cook would have taken a sack of rice on board and prepared it with whatever fish or seafood the crew caught on the day.
Tres 14 cook and serve their rice in deeper pans than the traditional shallow paelleras, designed so the stock wouldn’t spill over the sides in the galley of a fishing boat bobbing up and down in a rough sea.
- Casa Modesto on the beach at Cala de Finestrat (the next town up the coast from La Vila towards Benidorm)
© Guy Pelham 2019