For World Food Day in Out of the Blue on Sunday 16 October, Ellie Casson set out to overcome her fear of failure – the perfect paella is hard to make and she has tasted the best in Spain where it comes with sun, sand and the Med.
I have always loved paella. How could anyone not love sitting in bright sun on aged wood decking, pale blue paint peeling off the beams, 10 feet from the sand and just 20 feet from the Mediterranean? It really doesn’t matter what you’re eating, if you’re sitting at the back of Restaurante Kati on a Sunday afternoon surrounded by families enjoying the day, the view, the food and each other’s company.
Restaurante Kati is in a fishing village called Cabo de Palos in Murcia, where there is also a lovely Sunday market. It is run by a family of fishermen. The men bring back their catch after an early start, and their wives and sisters cook in the kitchen for locals returning from the market laden with bags of oranges and this week’s fashion must-have.
My father was the first brave soul in our family to attempt to replicate the paella that we know to be the best in Spain. With a St Michael’s cookbook for guidance, the first product was delicious. But not quite a paella.
Dad persisted over a number of years, learning from Spanish friends the secrets to their paellas. One would add ñoras, dried whole red peppers. Another would prefer a fish-only paella. All agreed that the golden yellow comes not from saffron, but colorante – the amount of real saffron you need would cost a small fortune and a herd of camels.
Unfortunately for Dad, he is British. So even when he replicated the recipe of one Spanish friend to the letter, another would tut and say that it was a very good effort. But not a paella.
This is why I have always been anxious about making paella. However, for the World Food event on the 16th of October, I set self-doubt and fears aside.
I do not have the benefit of Dad’s Spanish master classes, but I have a good stock of cookbooks, the internet, and I know what the best paella in Spain tastes like. Research done, I set about my trial run.
It seems the secret to a good paella is first the oil. In 80ml of olive oil (from my friend’s very own trees) I separately cooked then removed a whole, unpeeled head of garlic, a ñora, a good bunch of thyme, chopped chorizo, chunks of pork belly, squid cut into rings, and chicken thighs. Had I had the heads of some prawns I would have cooked these too.
The next important stage is a flavoursome sofrito. [see above]. I made mine with garlic, onions, and chopped chargrilled peppers. Then I added 8 small, peeled tomatoes and cooked the whole mixture until almost all the moisture was gone.
Now the rice: Spanish Calasparran or bomba rice is added and cooked for a couple of minutes before half the stock is added, along with browned chicken, thyme, garlic bulb, ñora and, in this – but not future – cases, saffron. A good amount of salt is added too. Then the hard part. Do not touch! All I did was add more stock if it was looking a little dry.
15 minutes later, I added chunks of hake plus cooked chorizo, pork belly and squid. Another 15 minutes later, with a touch more stock along the way, in went prawns [above] to simmer with the rest of the ingredients until just cooked.
Result? Almost spot on. In future I shall use colorante and I will take a little more care about how much stock to add, but I think I am as close as I can get to the best (British) paella I will ever be able to make. No sand, no Med but so far there is sun: Scotland’s October weather this year seems to be on my side to complete the experience!
Editor adds: The sun shone and Ellie’s paella certainly passed the test at the World Food lunch. Here she is sharing a few secrets of success. For more mouthwatering pictures see Ellie’s World Kitchen in Leith collection on Flickr