As owner of The Spanish Table and a purveyor of paella pans of all sizes, as well as portable propane burners and ingredients, I’m obligated on a daily basis to remember past paellas the way the press obligated Elizabeth Taylor to remember her ex-husbands.   I am asked by customers about the first time, the worst time and the most memorable time.  I have my answers.  I know which paella was my Mike Todd, my Eddie Fisher paella, my Richard Burton.
The first paella I ever ate in Spain was in Madrid in 1985 in a place Lonely Planet recommended that was up some innocuous and narrow stairs. The waiter was glad to see us as there was at that moment no fútbol game on the TV to distract him, and there were not many other customers to make demands on him.  As it often is with firsts, it was a great experience.  After a lengthy delay during which we drained a large terracotta pitcher of brownish wine, the waiter appeared with a broad pan brimming with crusty, golden rice speckled with carefully allocated ingredients: one gamba for each, one langostino, one almeja.  It was accompanied by a simple salad of lettuce, tomatoes and sweet onions.  As we consumed it, we thought we had stepped out of our lives and into “The Sun Also Rises.”  We were high on the very romance of being in Spain.

The worst Paella I ate in Spain was in a town which shall remain unnamed but the streets of which were filled with tourists wearing swim suits under large scarves intended to make oily, pink flesh presentable for lunch.  We had asked an old man on a bench for directions to a restaurant recommended by Fodors.  He had scratched his head, looked bewildered, and told us where he liked to eat.  As the owner seated us, he asked us if we would like the “Menu.”  Thinking he meant a printed menu, we said yes.  He meant the Prix Fixe menu which was paella. This paella could only be described as smelling of rancid olive oil and tasting of vegetables scavenged from discards found lying on the hot pavement after the farmer’s market closed for the morning.  The only thing that could be said for it was that it was dirt cheap.

I personally had a hand in my most memorable Spanish paella.  I was hand held by the mother of an exchange student from Valencia we had hosted in our home.  She promised that if I came to Valencia, she would teach me the “right” way to make paella. Her brown eyes sparkled as she explained what was right and what was wrong about my technique.  Her paella incorporated ingredients foraged from the hills by her uncle.  A wild rabbit he had snared, a sprig of feral rosemary, caracoles (land snails) stripped from wild artichoke stalks while they were still covered with dew. She apologized that the beans we used were from the farmer’s market (Valencia’s Mercat Central is Spain’s largest).  Her family lived in a mid-rise building without gardens. She told me that she would have had a garden of her own one day. I’m sure she would have held my hand while we picked beans from her garden together.

Steve Winston was our guest this week at The Brown Lounge’s Annual Paella Party.  We called  it  “A Night in Madrid.”  It was a great evening for us and I sincerely hope it will make good story telling fodder for Steve’s tales of Paella.  Watch our Paella Party Video to see how we did it!

Here’s to your next dinner party!

Cheers – Holly