Tag Archives: Albufera

52nd International Paella Competition, Sueca 2012.



Paella Competition!

This is THE Paella event of the year! Sueca is the spiritual home of the paella, centre of the rice-growing district and each year hosts the International competition to declare the best paella chef of the year. Thirty professionals, from accredited restaurants are selected to cook. Any restauranter in the world can apply, but only 30 will be selected and this year saw invitations to Las Vegas, New Zealand and France as well as restaurants from Cordoba, Seville, Madrid, Jaen, in wider Spain. The remainder were local restaurants from Murcia and within the Valencian Community.

Japans Entrant.

There is no getting away from it…competition is intense but remarkably friendly, all the chefs and their teams exchange jokes and banter before it starts but once it has the only interchange is a sneaky glance at how your neighbour is doing during the two hours allowed for cooking. The rules are very tightly written, the ingredients, pans, wood, triangle supports and water are all supplied by the town hall in order to ensure a level playing field.

In line with tradition, if not the rules of the Paella D.O.  ( as I have written before they take paella very seriously, almost as a religion, here in Valencia) only the following may be used:-

Rice from Sueca, Free range chicken, rabbit, snails, garrofó, tavella and ferradura ( the three beans) olive oil, garlic, tomato, pimentón, saffron and a sprig of rosemary ( which is optional).

The town hall thoughtfully set aside the park opposite Sueca Station and fence off thirty corrals for the chefs to cook in.

Even the method of cooking and the order the ingredients are added to the paella pan are prescribed. Essentially the aim is to cook as slowly as possible to brown the meat and create a caramel in the bottom of the pan which forms the basis of the `socorrat´, the most prized element of the paella which essentially is the burn´t bit on the bottom!

Restaurant El Castillo.

By the time the tomato, pimentón and veg have been added the caramel is building nicely. Then the water and saffron are added and the meat cooks slowly for another half hour or so to tenderise it as well as cooking the vegetables properly ( no pre-soaked beans, no packets or jars or tins allowed, the veg is fresh!)

Then with around 25 minutes to go the fire is stoked up, the liquor brought to a rolling boil and the rice and snails added. After 15 minutes the heat is reduced and after it reaches the point where it is cooked, the paella pan is lifted off the supporting triangle and sat on the ashes to `reposar´or relax, as well as fixing the socorrat.

Then the chefs take their paellas to be judged by the Jury and the teams, their guests, the dignitaries and other lucky visitors go off to the local banqueting suite for a very good lunch, courtesy of the Town Hall and the sponsors!

This year I found myself amongst the fortunate guests! How so? Well, the Plataforma Información Gastronomica, dedicated defenders of Valencian gastronomy in general and defenders of paella in particular had entered local restauranter Eduardo Frechina of El Castillo, Godella and invitation had fallen through his letter box.

Supportes of PIG eat Almuerzo.

Not surprisingly therefore his `equipe´ consisted of at least 11 supporters who arrived in Sueca for almuerzo, bread, ventresca provided by Maestro Galbis from nearby  L´Alcúdia and a rabbit dish cooked previously by Eduardo taken with bread and washed down with Cava and Syrah from Daniel Belda.

Suitably fortified, attention turned to preparation, the beans podded and chopped, the chicken and rabbit cut to appropriate chunks, the tomatos grated, the garlic peeled and the rice and water collected from the organisers. Then the orange branches were broken up ready to add to the fire as needed, the sand laid out on the floor and the triangular support steadied and levelled with the appropriate pebble. All of this was done meticulously, with great attention to detail and much additional tradition ( eg the jugs of San Miguel to keep the team fresh) under a growing sun!

The start was announced but curiously no-one lit their fires for a while! Smart phones were deployed to time the different stages!  Eventually the fires were lit the pans deployed, oiled and salted and the meat began to cook.

As the stages unfolded the crowd gathered at various stalls, the TV crews ( at least five) interrupted proceedings with interminable interviews and famous chefs who were not invited this year chatted to their competing colleagues, offering unwanted advice! The previous years winner is automatically excluded from the competition and participants from the previous year may only compete if there are insufficient new applicants.


Acrid smoke wafted through the trees, the heat increased….and not just the heat of competition!

Gradually we reached the stage where the rice was added, the air now white with smoke, the San Miguel flowed faster.

Then suddenly it was all over, the paellas were being carried to the judges leaving the teams to clear up after their respective chefs and enjoy the odd bottle of cava which had been lurking in the bottom of the cold boxes.

We joined the procession to SalaCancela where the lunch was being held .

Five courses were to follow, a tartlet of seafood with wild mushroom, Valencian Salad, a cannelloni of Confit of Albufera duck, a palate cleanser of mojito, a main course consisting of paella, the thirty competition entries shared out amongst the 250 guests, then a chocolate ice cream bombe, coffees and brandy. Wines were provided by 40ºNorte, a Merseguera/Sauvingnon Blanc blend called Mar de sao and a young Syrah, So de Syrah, a top new bodega from Alforins. Cava was provided by Bodega Pago de Tharsys, the Brut Nature Carlota Suria being the perfect accompaniment to paella.

Competition Quality Paella.

The prizes were handed out, the eventual winner being declared as Restaurant Ba-Ba-Reeba from Las Vegas, USA. But it was alright, those pesky Americans hadn´t really won at all as the Chefs were Valencians who live there!

For the record, our team of Eduardo Frechina and Alfonso Martinez Serrano came ninth out of 30, just outside the awards, but rewarded by the experience of cooking with the best….make no bones about it Michelin starred chefs such as Oscar Torrijos were taking part as well and there are no losers as participation in the occasion is sufficient!

PIGs can hold their heads high and plan victory for next year!


The Winners! Ba-Ba-Reeba, Las Vegas.


Paella Valencia, Queen of Paellas Now Has its D.O.- But Not Entirely Popularly!

Paella Valencia - The Real Thing!

In September 2009 my second post was about the creation of the Platform for the Defence Of Valencian Paella by a group of 10 top restaurant owners  in the Valencia area. They were shocked at what was being passed off as Paella and were seeking Denominación Original status which would define the ingredients that were permitted. Anything else would simply be a paella or an arroz ( rice dish) and could not be described as `Paella Valencia´.

Remarkably quickly for Spanish bureaucracy and entirely to its credit, this week the Government in Valencia has decreed that Paella Valencia does indeed have its own DO. Moreover it has decreed the ten essential ingredients and one or two seasonal variations that go into the authentic dish.

Quickly on its heels the DO for Valencian Rice has thrown its support behind the initiative and will provide a sticker for restaurant windows which will identify it as an establishment where the authentic Paella Valencia is served, thus ensuring that tourists are not hoodwinked into trying something passing itself off as the real deal!

Chicken, Rabbit, Beans, The Base Ingredients.

And you would think everyone would be very happy with this wouldn´t you? Oh no, voices are raised in objection already!

The problem is all Spanish families have their own personal variation ( or variations) of `authentic´local dishes! Many will not be happy at being told that the Valencian Paella they have cooked for their entire lives and probably in competitions in their local towns is not the real thing! Moreover Valencia is a province ( one of three including Castellon and Alicante) which make up the Valencian Community. In my experience the gastronomy here changes every thirty to forty miles and dishes cooked in the Horta Norte are very different from those in the Comarca of Utiel-Requena or the Plana Alta. Paella is one dish cooked in every area of the Valencian Community but there are huge regional differences depending on the variety of local produce. Paellas can include seafood or even be vegetarian ( trust me-I do not lie) and one of the most famous here in my locality of the Camp de Turia is Paella de Bledes, ( chard ). Paella Valencia it is not! So, what is?

Historically the dish was created in the Albufera district South of Valencia and was a working mans meal where they could carry their ingredients with them when they went to work. Originally eels, wild duck and rice which were plentiful in the area were included. Gradually the area became more populated and the locals started to build houses and create gardens. With them came the inevitable small livestock ( chickens and rabbits) and it is this which now makes up the basis of Valencian Paella.

Bringing the Water to the Boil!

Officially the ten ingredients are as follows:- Chicken, rabbit, tomato, white and green beans, saffron, oil, salt, water and rice.

The paella is traditionally cooked over a fire of orange wood in a `paella´ which is a flat metal pan.

The oil is heated until smoking, salt added and then the chicken and rabbit pieces are browned before adding the grated tomato and beans. These are cooked before the water is added with the saffron, the salt is adjusted and then the rice incorporated. Once the rice is cooked the dish stands for a few minutes and is then eaten communally from the pan, each diner using their own spoon and all fighting for the `soccorrat´which is the most highly prized part, the slightly crispy base of the dish. Sounds simple doesn´t it? It is not.

Moreover I live just 25 km from the Albufera as the crow flies. Here in the Camp de Turia paprika is added to the dish when the chicken is cooked, and small local snails, gathered from the tops of wild  fennel stalks after rain are very popular as well. When the water is boiling and just before the rice is added a small bunch of fresh wild rosemary is incorporated as well.

In other parts e.g. Castellon pork rib is included and elsewhere strips of cooked red pepper are added.

These recipes and their local variations are sold in restaurants from North to South so I suspect the arguments will continue for some time to come and the DO for Valencian Rice may find it difficult to give its stickers away. Like all Protected Foodstuffs and Wines the idea is to protect the identity and no-one can dispute Paella Valencia is the most Nationally ( and Internationally) paella…….and sadly there are some atrocious variations which bear no relationship to the original dish. If tourists in the Valencia area are protected from some of this abuse then  the initiative will have been worthwhile.

But changing the habits and lifelong recipes of every Valencian family? I think that is one aim which  is doomed to failure. I have no doubt `Valencian Paella´ will continue to be cooked and  enjoyed  with its  whole host of variations!

And a Good Bottle of Wine to go with it!

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