Paella over fire at Casa Carmela

‘Real’ Paella Valenciana – with Casa Carmela’s Toni Novo

Paella.  Valencia’s most sacred gastronomic tradition is also its most famous contribution to global cuisine.  The shallow pans of saffron scented rice show up all over Spain, from Las Ramblas to the streets of Cadiz.  Even outside of Spain, it has gained recognition and can be found in trendy Spanish eateries from Melbourne to Manhattan, usually alongside other classics like sangría, gazpacho and jamón ibérico.  But unfortunately, with popularity, often comes mediocrity, and most have either been bastardized to the point that they are no longer “paella”, or simply underwhelm; a rather bland concoction of soggy rice, with a few bits of seafood, frequently overcooked to the point of mush.

“This a problem”, says Toni Novo, owner of one of Valencia’s oldest, and most renowned temples of rice, Casa Carmela.  And Toni should know.  His restaurant, Casa Carmela has been making traditional paellas since 1922 and was recently awarded 2 laureados in Valencia’s Almanaque Gastronómico, 2016 edition.  Only one other paella focused restaurant placed as high in this category, for the entire Comunidad of Valencia.

Toni Novo, Casa Carmela

Toni Novo, owner of Casa Carmela shows us a blue lobster from the Mediterranean

“With Michelin star (cooking) no one understands it,” Novo explains, “but with paella, the whole world thinks they know it.”  Indeed, what you’re likely ordering is probably not the ‘real’ thing, at least in terms of the original dish, Paella Valenciana.  We met with Tony a few weeks ago, in an effort to get some clarity on the topic.  What does make a good Paella?

For Tony, it boils down to five basic requirements:

1. Proper Ingredients. “Many people have preconceptions about Paella, but the concept of Paella started with Paella Valenciana, which is chicken, rabbit, duck, vegetables and snails,” Novo explains.  This is fairly accepted knowledge throughout the region, although no one disputes that you can’t make a tasty dish with other ingredients, such as the arroz del Senyoret, which is topped with a mix of shellfish.  But to talk true Paella Valenciana, the meat ingredients must be chicken, rabbit and duck.  Novo explains how the duck especially plays an important role, as its fat renders into the broth, and eventually coats the rice, giving it a shiny appearance and deep, rich flavor.

Vegetable selection is of equal importance. Casa Carmela uses only the traditional vegetables, most of which can only found in this region.  “In Valencia we use the judia ferradura and in the rest of the country they use judia perona. The flavor (of the former) is more fresh.   We also use fresh garrofó beans, which are very hard to find outside of Valencia, and very expensive. You can buy them cheaper frozen, but we use fresh only. Very few restaurants even in Valencia use the fresh beans. When in season we also use artichokes.”

The other stuff you often find in paella was created for tourists.  “Chorizo, peppers, pork ribs…those are not accurate,” says Novo.

As for the snails?  “It’s difficult,” Toni explains.  “Snails are a traditional ingredient, but people either love them or hate them.”  Casa Carmela therefore offers versions with and without, to accommodate their customers.

traditional paella vegetables

Traditional vegetables used in Paella Valenciana: (left) judia ferradura (right) garrofó beans

2. Smoke.  This next topic will surely cause a stir, as it’s a well known fact that every Valenciano believes that mamá’s rice is the absolute best.  Of course, there is no disputing this fact, and certainly many home cooked paellas are done on a gas stovetop and probably taste pretty darn good.   However, when it comes to seeking out true, traditional paella, there is no substitute for the kind cooked over a wood fire.  The difference, says Novo, “is the taste…the flavor of the smoke.”

And it’s true.  Whether you’re talking burgers, ribs, Japanese yakitori, or baba ganoush, some food is just plain best when cooked using fire. Paella is no exception.  Novo uses the traditional mix of orange tree wood for the first part of the process, which requires a slower burning, steady flame.  Towards the end, when it’s time to evaporate out the water, he adds smaller branches of pine, which burn quickly, producing a hotter flame.  Unfortunately, for restaurants it’s a process which is neither economical nor convenient.  “98 percent of the restaurants in Valencia do not use wood fire,” says Novo.

paellas over fire

Rices cooking over fire in the kitchen at Casa Carmela

3. Water.  According to Novo, Paella Valenciana needs good old fashioned Valencian tap water.  “The water in Valencia is different than the water from Santander, or the water from Mallorca,” he explains.  It’s a strange requirement considering most Valencians don’t actually drink the water.  But before you roll your eyes, keep in mind that this is a recurring theme in other places around the world.  New Yorkers claim their bagels are one of a kind because of the tap water, and sake producers in Japan swear that the secret to quality is in their natural streams.  It’s a theory that’s hard to dispel.

4. Timing and Socarrat. OK, so we’ve got the right ingredients, the right water and a wood fire.  Now comes the technique, for which an article such as this can do no justice.  But the secret, Toni says, is timing.  “Timing is very important…and also the ratio of water to the amount of fire is very important. If the rice cooks in the stock too slowly, then it will break. If it cooks to quickly it will be too hard.”

A perfectly timed paella not only produces rice with the right texture, but the holy grail of a successful dish, the socarrat.  When the water evaporates at just the right time and speed, the bottom grains burn just slightly, producing a crispy bottom layer, which is scraped from the pan with a wooden spoon when eaten.  Novo says this can be a surprise to some customers, especially from other cultures, who think that it’s a mistake.  But “without socarrat,” he says, “it’s not paella.”


Paella’s signature ingredient, saffron

5. Quality Saffron.   Alas, the saffron.  The aromatic, wispy threads, give paella its signature flavor, and just a hint of yellow color.  Often, however, what you’re likely getting contains no saffron at all, and instead a bright orange food coloring, a staple the can be found in just about every grocery store in Valencia.  It’s a shame, but understandable condition of economics.  “Good saffron is more expensive than caviar,” Toni says.  “It’s very important to toast it first, because when you fry it will completely dissolve into the broth.”

A note about the rice.  We asked Toni about the importance of the rice.  Does it have to be bomba for example?  We were surprised by his answer.  “I don’t use bomba rice.  For me it’s not that important.  I do think some people are accustomed to it,” he says.

The Verdict.  There’s no doubt that just about everyone in Valencia has a different opinion about paella.  Bringing up this topic amongst locals or even expats, is bound to spark controversy, and even heated debate.  Only a discussion about football is capable of evoking more emotion.

For us, however, the proof is in the pan.  The perfectly cooked rice, shiny from duck fat, the crispy layer of socarrat, the exotic hint of saffron, and that glorious smoke come together in a dish that’s remarkably delicious; the very definition of comfort food.  Casa Carmela may not be the only game in town, but it is certainly one of the best.  If you’ve been searching for the perfect paella, it’s well worth a visit.  And if you’re still not sold, at least you’ll know you’ve had the real thing.

Traditional Paella Valenciana

Traditional Paella Valenciana

Read more about Casa Carmela.








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