Eel Island Stew….4th Concurso de Alli Pebre, El Palmar, 1 July 2013.

The pretty little village of El Palmar sits on an Island in the Albufera lake, a nature reserve to the South of Valencia. Here, protected from the sea, by a strip of land and connected by canals the local fishermen and restauranteurs of the town live cheek by jowl with the local wildlife. At weekends in particular much of Valencia descends on the town for a meal in one of the many restaurants which specialise in traditional Valencian paella, seafood rice dishes, seafood in general and alli pebre, the local eel and potato dish.

The lake is famous for its birds but its two fishy stars are the eels and the `lissa´, a type of mullet, which is used as both  an alternative to salted cod in esgarret and fried as pescaditos when small.

Alli PebreSetting aside the rice-growing traditions of the area and paella the next most important dish is the alli pebre and El Palmar has its own local recipe. The ingredients are not many! For a meal for four people typically you would expect a kilo of eels, 10cl of Olive oil, a head of garlic, 1/2 a kilo of potatos, pimenton dulce, 1/2 a litre of water and half a guindilla, the local chilli pepper, plus salt.

Typical Barraca in Town.

Here it is the flavour of the eel that is most prized by the locals. For a dish which is essentially a stew, cooked in a lidded iron pot called a `perola´ over a wood fire, no thickening agents ( such as a picada of almonds or breadcrumbs) are allowed unlike other parts of Spain.

Nor is the method of cooking surprising. The oil is heated, the crushed garlic added and when it has taken the flavour the pimenton is added. Then most of the water is added and brought to the boil before the potatos go in. Once these are roughly half-cooked, the chopped eels are added and everything is simmered for around 15-20 minutes with the salt and the guindilla being added very much at the whim of the cook, depending on how `picante´ he or she wants the stew to be! This is the individual secret together with the amount of water which may be retained to obtain a slightly thicker stock. The dish is left to sit for five minutes before serving.

This year was the fourth time a competition had been held in the village to decide the best Alli Pebre restaurant for the coming year.

Some twenty-five restaurants from the town´s association and other Valencian localities ( such as Granero of Serra who won the recent Fidueà de Gandia competition) entered this year and the jury, consisting of top restauranteurs, chefs and food critics had the pleasant task of tasting all of them. Juan Carlos Galbis Olivares of L´Alcudìa headed the jury and he explained to me that this simple dish is not easy to cook properly! For example if you add too much pimenton the colour will be too dark and its flavour will dominate both the eels and the garlic. The jury essentially check that the stock is neither too thin nor too thick, that the eels are cooked perfectly to the point that when eaten the flesh springs from the bone intact and tender and is not a mush. Clearly the potatos must be  firm and not collapsing but the rest is essentially a matter of taste.



So, imagine this little town with its square cordoned off, the cooking stations set up and the townspeople and the visitors, not to mention the press now swarming around awaiting the action and the inevitable meal afterwards! The tables are laid, the platform for the prize giving erected and expectation is high. Fortunately this well organised fair was supported by Cruz Campo beers, BOCOPA wines and coca-cola so no-one went thirsty whilst waiting! Also the winning restaurant from last year, El Redoli, provided a free Alli Pebre so that the visitors ( those not invited to the formal dinner) could also try the dish.

Ironically cooking the dish takes rather less time than the judging process! Each of the perolas was whisked to the Cañas y Barras bar where the jury sat and deliberated and the press pack swarmed! Eventually the results were available and we all sat down to the meal and the formal announcements. Dishes of tomatos and olives, esgarret, tortilla ( from one of the neighbouring restauranteurs) and  clotxinas preceded the alli pebre which was followed by cakes washed down with mistela. Simple, traditional and very,very good!

The results of this years competition were announced by Sylvia Soria cases, radio presenter of  `El Forcat´ and in 3rd place was Granero of Serra. 2nd were restaurant L´Andana of El Palmar and third 2nd time winners El Redoli also of El Palmar.

Suddenly an evening which had started at about 6.30pm had ended and at around midnight the square was all quiet again….awaiting the following days tourist buses and diners! The atmosphere had been so friendly on a warm summers evening it was difficult to believe it was all over for another year!

Alli Pebre.

Alli Pebre.

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