Monday, 22 November 2021

In praise of paella. Packet foods and ready meals. Explosive tins of beans!

Just the other day I read that paella is being given protected cultural status on the grounds that a proper paella celebrates the “art of unity and sharing”.

“Paella is an icon of the Mediterranean diet, because of both its ingredients and its characteristics as a representation of Valencian culture,” read the declaration of protected status. 

“All the ingredients used in its preparation – such as fish, meat, vegetables, the justly famous and healthy olive oil and the complete grain that is rice – are part of the Mediterranean diet.”

I’ve never seen anyone make a big thing about “wood-fired paella”, as they do for “wood-fired pizza”, but one thing the article I read did say was that “Heat sources are important: although orange tree wood abounds in Valencia “and gives the dish a special character and aroma”, the main thing is to ensure your fire’s not too smoky, or, if cooking on an indoor stove, to check the hob distributes the heat evenly, it said.”

There you go. I have a “paellera”, a paella pan, like a very wide flat-bottomed frying pan with two handles. I’ve not used it for years because I’ve just not made paella, goodness knows why! It’s better than a wok because of its flat bottom which gives an even distribution of rice. That’s an important factor. The article went on to say, “ Perhaps the most important rule of all is to never stir the rice while it is cooking. Any spatula incursions will release too much starch from the rice and leave you with a sticky paella.”

Long ago, on holiday in France with some French friends, I was persuaded to make a paella, even though we didn’t really have a suitable pan. We used the largest, widest saucepan we could find to avoid too great a depth of content, but, even so, the moment came when my friend’s mother said to us, out of concern for her good saucepan I think, “Ça brule au fond, les enfants!” - “It’s burning at the bottom, kids!” The mixture was too deep and really needed stirring to prevent it sticking but we didn’t want to mess up the paella. The final result was surprisingly good, as I remember but my memory may be playing tricks on me as it’s well over 40 years ago now.

There was  o way we could eat communally out of the saucepan, as you can do from a big paella pan, placing the pan traditionally in the middle of the table and everyone dipping in with a spoon, ideally a wooden spoon! And we avoided digging too deep so as not to eat burnt rice. And the pan needed a good soak before we could clean it to my friend’s mother’s satisfaction. We enjoyed our paella though. 

In Galicia we have eaten “arroz con bogavante”, which is almost a Galician version of paella. For me paella has always meant a mix of chicken and shellfish (No, Jamie Oliver, chorizo is not a good addition!) whereas “arroz con bogavante” is all lobster and eaters need to be provided with gadgets like nutcrackers to break into the lobster claws and get the meat. Both are tasty but on the whole I prefer the Valencian paella.

Before I found an authentic recipe and bought myself a paellera, for a brief period we tried Vesta packet paella. Like Vesta packet curry it was a poor substitute but for a while, back in the 1970s it was relatively hard find the spices and other ingredients needed for what was then rather exotic food. In France we discovered a superior form of the ready meals, similar to Vesta but much, much better. For the life of me I cannot remember the brand name but rather than dehydrated packets of stuff, these packs contained tins, giving a better flavour to the resulting dish. Their best was probably couscous.

On the subject of tinned food, we always have a supply of baked beans in the house. This is largely because Phil has a long held belief that of you run out of other ideas for a quick meal, you can always have beans. And in fact baked beans on wholemeal toast make a well balanced meal - just not one to have every day! Even in Vigo we sought out supplies of Heinz baked beans. 

As we emptied our cupboards prior to leaving our Vigo flat we discovered two tins of beans we had squirrelled away for emergencies. They looked a little odd and misshapen. Maybe they had been banged slightly out of shape. But we had always been given to understand that canned goods lasted more or less for ever. Not too many years ago they investigated canned goods people had kept in old family store cupboards for decades. Some dated back to the second world war. All the ones they opened were fine and were judged to be edible. So much for sell-by and use-by dates! 

So we decided to eat one of our cans of beans. After all, we had sought them out at some point in Spanish supermarkets. But I had some difficulty  opening the can. It had one of those pull-back openings rather than requiring a can-opener. Phil came to my assistance. The next thing we knew was the can opening with an enormous BANG! Positively explosive! It’s a wonder we didn’t have a shower of beans all over the kitchen! But no, they stayed in the can, in a rather coagulated tomato sauce. Sorry, Mr Heinz, your beans ended up in the bin!

Life goes on. Stay safe and well, everyone! 

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