October 5, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

For me, one of the critical components of any culture, particularly Spanish culture, is its cuisine.  You can visit historic places and read age-old tales, but to eat a dish that has been passed down for generations and eaten by the rich and poor both in good times and bad (apparently I haven’t left the whole wedding thing behind me, have I?) is the ultimate cultural experience.  You may not be able to take the Alhambra with you back to your little corner of the world, but you most definitely can try to whip up a mean batch of gazpacho, thus transporting yourself, even just slightly, back to a scorching hot day in Andalucia.  This is what food is about to me.  So that is why I would like to take you on a little journey to experience an afternoon with a very well-loved Spanish dish – paella.  It famously originates from the Valencia region of Spain, can be cooked probably a million different ways, and made its formal debut as an official dish sometime during the 18th century.

Last weekend Jacobo and I headed to our friends Manu and Natalia’s house about 20 minutes north of Madrid on what was proving to be a perfect, sunny Autumn day.  It had been two whole years since we’d last had Manu’s paella, but our obsession with it was not forgotten – I was in fact so desperate for it that I bartered with Manu in order to get him to make it, offering my banana bread in return for his paella (a weak trade, I know, but he bought it!  Sucker!).  You see, Manu’s paella isn’t just served to you at a formal dinner table, but instead cooked slowly in his yard, all afternoon long, while the guests can see the ricey wonder transform into paella, and at the same time nosh on tapas as they throw back glass after glass of almost always delicious Spanish wine.

Arriving at Manu’s, the first line of business was pine cones.  Yes, pine cones.  Cooking the paella over them not only gives it great flavor, but the cones allow you to control the heat easily by adding more or by spreading them apart.  Nothing gets you in the mood for a good paella like working up some hunger while pine cone hunting.  Ok, who am I fooling, the hunting was brief, like five minutes amongst a small grove of trees on the side of the road, but does one really need to work very hard to build up a hunger for paella??  No? That’s what I thought.

Back at the house, Manu prepped the broth for the paella in the kitchen by filling a large pot with water, then adding paellero seasoning (a premix of paella spices – the key spice being saffron), chicken broth cubes, a whole tomato and a whole onion.  Done with his work there, he turned on the stove heat to high and headed out to the yard where the real work began (and consequently where my real work began – sampling the tapas and wine of course! A rough job, but I didn’t want to be rude and not express my appreciation for the fine appetizers).

Out in the yard, the table was set with care – and by care I mean all the essentials were present: jamón, manchego cheese, bread, potato chips (not an essential for me, but strangely enough a tapas essential in most all Spanish households), and white wine (to be followed by two other red wines).  Meanwhile, Manu prepped the BBQ with a few pine cones, lighting them on fire and placing the paellera, or paella pan, on top of the rack.  First into the pan was a touch of olive oil and four whole cloves of garlic, which he cooked until browned.  While the garlic was cooking, he chopped up a bit of tomato, and a quarter or so each of the green and red bell peppers.  Once removing the garlic from the pan and setting it aside, in went the tomato and peppers, sizzling away.

While the pepper and tomato cooked, our paella chef chopped up the pig ribs (something I could admittedly live without – I’m still working on my love of pig) and chicken (bones and all), and then mashed up the browned garlic.  After the tomato and pepper had done their time in the paellera, it was the pig’s turn (as apparently it takes the longest to cook) along with the mashed garlic.  Before too long, the sausage was added, and then finally the chopped chicken.  The smell of the intermingling ingredients and the crackling pine cones was intoxicating.

Meanwhile, the broth was merrily boiling away in the kitchen, just waiting for showtime.  So after all the meats had cooked for a bit, it was time to add that broth to the paellera so that it could boil, slurp and pop its way to perfection.  For how long you ask?  Good question, and one that I posed to Manu.  The response, “oh you know, as long as I feel like.”

You’re probably starting to wonder about that key ingredient aren’t you?  The rice!  Not just any rice though – it should ideally be Spanish paella rice as it is especially absorbent and therefore sucks up all of the mouth watering flavors.  There are two important things to keep in mind at this point:  1) don’t add too much rice – a good paella is one that has a very thin layer of rice, which ensures that it is evenly cooked, and 2) once you add the rice, no stirring as nothing makes a Spaniard more happy than the slightly crispy, almost burnt rice that is stuck to the bottom of the paellera. This crusty layer of rice is called socarrat and is indeed the most coveted part of the paella – the part which the server will laboriously scrape at so that you can have that crunchy goodness on your plate. 

Around 4:30PM, the rice had finally absorbed all of the broth, and lunch (yes, lunch!) was ready to be served.  Manu’s masterpiece had a smoky flavor and perfectly crusted bottom – I can hardly write this without contemplating heading to the kitchen to feverishly find a spoonful of saffron just calm my nerves! Mixed with a glass of wine (eh hem, or several) and the mildly warm weather, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect Spanish afternoon.  A big thanks to Manu and Natalia for making it all happen!

So brave Spanish Cuisine Chef (yeah, that’s you!), are you ambitious enough to take an imaginary journey to the Spanish countryside and try your hand at making paella?  If so, I’ve included the list of ingredients below (albeit in fairly loose quantities, but you’re adventurous, so who cares!?).  In the meantime, though, since I’ve got you all worked up into a Spanish food tizzy (I know, it was rather cruel wasn’t it?), perhaps you’d like to go grab a snack and cozy up for a little journey through food around the world!  It’s the subject of the latest blog carnival by the Lonely Planet BlogSherpas, which is hosted by Tie Dye Travels.  It’s calorie free, so why not?

Paella ingredients:

    2 tomatoes
    1 onion
    1/4 of 1 green bell pepper
    1/4 of 1 red bell pepper
    Paella spices such as saffron, paprika, thyme and garlic (or just use “paellero” if you can find it)
    4-5 cloves of garlic
    Chicken broth cubes
    Spanish paella rice
    Pig ribs
    Sausage (ideally chistorra)
    Olive oil
    Pine cones!!
    *Note that you can find various Spanish products, such as the Spanish rice or paella pan, at La Tienda

13 Responses to “Pine cones, paella and a perfect Spanish afternoon”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Sounds like a typical Sunday to me!

  2. Erin Says:

    I think I need to make it out to Valancia sometime soon for one of those typical Sundays!

  3. Miss Footloose Says:

    Found you via TBEX, and so enjoyed your post. It brought back memories of eating paella in Valencia, some years ago now. We were with our two young daughters, one of them very brave and eating the snails in them . . . . unitl, well, never mind. I am inspired now to try my own hands at making paella.

    About the rice crust on the bottom of the pan, did you know one of the classic Persian/Iranian dishes called tahdig (tah-dig, tahdeeg) has a rice crust at the bottom, and is the best, most-loved part of the dish? I found a link here to a recipe. I had the dish in Armenia once, made by a friend who grew up in Iran. It was delicious.


  4. Erin Says:

    Well you don’t have to twist my arm on this one – one look at the picture of the tah-dig and I’m convinced! Looks delicious and a heck of a lot less laborious than paella (particularly considering that no pine cone hunting will be required!). Thanks for sharing! I’ve just visited your site as well and look forward to hearing more about your travels!

  5. David from Quillcards Says:

    Well it all looks delicious – substitute beef for the pork and I’m in!

    Somehow Spain makes me think of deep and dark tastes – whereas France makes me think of lighter tastes.

    I don’t know Madrid – I only know the south and the east coast up to the border with France. So I ask, is the cuisine of Madrid different from the rest of Spain?

  6. Jennifer Says:

    Ohhhh, this paella sounds like such a nice departure from all the seafood-based paellas in Barcelona. And cooking it over pine cones rather than the propane grill ring – awesome!!

  7. Erin Says:

    The food in Spain is different and yet the same everywhere you go – no matter the place, you will always find staples (tortilla, croquetas, jamon, etc), and yet pretty much every region and pueblo has its own specialities.  I could go on for days about the “platos tipicos” around Spain, and yet, for some reason, Madrid strangely isn’t known for many specific dishes or a certain type of cuisine.  Perhaps its most well known dish (amongst Spaniards anyway) is “cocido” which is a stew made of vegetables and garbanzo beans.  I suppose you could say that as the capital of Spain and the center of the country it tends to be a conglomerate of the country’s regional dishes.

    As far as lighter tastes go, you should definitely take a trip to Galicia in the northwest of Spain.  The cuisine there is much lighter and likely quite different than Spanish cuisine as you know it.  Just buy yourself a bottle of Albariño wine (a Galician wine) and you will easily be able to imagine the tasty and refreshing cuisine that it might accompany!  

  8. Erin Says:

    Jennifer – I think I generally have paella-jealously of you “east coast” folks! It’s just not a common dish at all in Madrid, so I’ll take whatever kind of paella I can get my hands on (particularly Manu’s, which happens to be incredible!).

  9. David from Quillcards Says:


    I have been interested in visiting Galicia for a long, long time. I remember reading about what formed the character of General Franco, and the biography described the wild and rugged coast of Galicia where he grew up.

    For my part, I grew up with a natural tendency towards the Republicans – hating the oppression that Franco stood for, but the rocky countryside and the pounding seas seemed like an interesting place.

    To hear that the cuisine is lighter than other Spanish cuisine and different adds even more interest.

    I have to keep Albariño wine in my memory – ready for the occasion.

    I think of ‘alba’ as deriving from the word ‘white’ – is there a connection there with the name of the wine?

  10. Erin Says:

    I’m not entirely sure of the meaning “alba,” and a quick search online hasn’t been too helpful. I do know that a slew of Spanish words come from Arabic. This apparently includes pretty much all the words starting with “al,” such as “almendra” (almond), “almohada” (pillow), “albahaca” (basil), not to mention many Spanish cities. I’m not sure why these specific words stuck in the Spanish language, but it sure would be interesting to learn more about it. Hmmm, perhaps a future blog :).

  11. Jay Says:

    I have tried many forms of Paella and have not found one that I can say I liked. After living here for 6 years I guess I can say that is one of the meals in Spain I will not get to like 🙁 But there are many more dishes I love!!

  12. Erin Says:

    Gosh, and I thought paella was probably Spain’s most likable dish! Hopefully you’re not living in paella-country then! In Madrid it is certainly a dish that can be easily avoided.

  13. maria Says:

    Alba is not arabic, alba is from latin language albus that means white.
    And yes David, Franco grew up in Galicia but that doesnt mean that people in Galicia supports he more, so is not a problem your tendency towards the republicans to visit the place.

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