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Photo: Roland Bello

Alicante: a Paella Pilgrimage

Perhaps you’ve tasted soggy long-grain rice overloaded with chicken, chorizo, and lobster?If you thought this was paella, please, banish that image.

Spain’s culinary calling card, paella is a dish as misunderstood and abused as it is exalted. To get the real stuff you need to travel to its source—the rice-growing provinces of Valencia and Alicante along Spain’s east coast. Arroz was introduced here by the Romans, but it was the Arabs who later perfected its cultivation with an ingenious network of waterways that continue to irrigate local rice paddies. In this lush agricultural region, rice flourishes as something of an edible life force. Yet among the myriad preparations, paella stands out as a singular and strictly codified dish.

Purists—admittedly a militant bunch—insist that rice be cooked to a dryish consistency in a flat carbon-steel pan called a paella, the name deriving apparently from patella, a Roman ceremonial plate; that the cooking be performed outdoors over sarmiento (vine cuttings) or citrus branches; that those who load up their paellas with shellfish and chicken deserve to be burnt at the stake, because the only permissible ingredients are rabbit (or duck), snails, and a handful of vegetables—plus a simple broth bolstered with tomatoes and saffron. Rice and rice again is the star of the dish, and it had better be a native short-grain variety, such as senia or the squat heirloom bomba.

More than simply a dish, paella is a ritual, associated with countryside outings. Sure, you can find a good one in the cities of Valencia and Alicante, but your chances of encountering greatness increase in proportion to your distance from civilization. One popular paella excursion from Valencia leads to Casa Salvador, in Estany de Cullera, a stately place as famous for its lyrical lagoon setting as for its soupy lobster arroz and a paella studded with wild duck and artichoke hearts. Further still is Casa Paco, a rice citadel out in the sticks, discussed by paella junkies in the same conspiratorial tones that wine geeks reserve for certain vintages of Vega Sicilia Unico. It seemed worth a trek.

After a 35-mile drive from Alicante City though dust-covered hinterlands, my boyfriend Barry and I arrived at the featureless concrete hamlet of Pinoso and entered a featureless concrete restaurant. Inside, craggy wine growers and farmers were all having identical starters of grilled snails, and eggs scrambled with blood sausage. We followed suit. Eager to interview the owner, Paco Gandia—reportedly quite a character—I inquired about him from the cranky waiter. A shrug. But I was welcome to follow him to meet Josefa, Paco’s wife and the cook. Upon entering the kitchen, I gasped. Hunched over the stove, a tiny woman tended to three titanic paella pans. Leaping flames stoked by sarmiento encircled her in a scene suggesting a Zoroastrian fire ritual. Not a talkative type,  Josefa tersely explained her secret: layering the rice extremely thin in the pan—paella for two is easily the diameter of a bicycle tire—and cooking it over demonic flames. True to the inland tradition, she adds nothing more than rabbit, tomatoes, saffron, and snails, called vaquetes, that feed on wild herbs.

Was her paella good?More like mythical. Fire lent the rice its profoundly smoky inflection; the al dente grains were at once spongy and so lively they seemed to jump in my mouth. Chewing on sizzled nuggets of country rabbit, I understood why a couple next to us had driven all the way from Madrid for a taste. And I still wanted Paco. Another shrug from the waiter. Paco now loomed in my imagination as the Wizard of Oz of paella—or perhaps its fat impresario withdrawn into pompous privacy. Disappointed, we scraped off the last bits of the soccarat—the addictively crusty bottom layer of rice—and headed for the door. Glancing back over my shoulder, I saw the small waiter again. He had a strange grin on his face.

"I am Paco," he informed us nonchalantly, from across the room. Then he waved us adios.

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