Traditional paella in Valencia (Photo: Jenna Mahoney)
Chances are, if you’ve been to Spain lately, you’ve seen posters of visitor-friendly restaurants flaunting “authentic paella,” with quick time-to-your-table promises. The reality is that authentic paella couldn’t be any different, and a small group of Spaniards is rising up and fighting back. A coalition comprised of aficionados, chefs, journalists, and even some international lawyers has launched Wikipaella, a Valenica-based watchdog group of sorts that aims to protect Spain’s most famous dish from fast-food imitations targeted to tourists.
“It’s a nonprofit collective of authentic paella lovers,” says Guillermo Navarro, founder of Wikipaella. “Their aim is to protect, defend, define, and educate people about the true paella.”
Taking their cue from the French, who protect the authenticity of Champagne, these purists are pushing to preserve the history, cooking methods, and — of course — the real delectable taste of paella. And the movement is growing. An official website launched this winter with genuine recipes, instructional videos from some of the world’s best paella crafters, and user involvement. The team is slowly rolling out an authentication process for restaurants. And some members are researching ways to get paella protected as a cultural institution.
Traditional paella in Valencia (Photo: Jenna Mahoney)
So what makes paella authentic? There are a few ground rules. For one thing, it takes time. It’s cooked over wood and served only at lunch (2 p.m. to 4 p.m.). Paella must consist of calasparra (a Valencia-regional short-grain rice) or arroz bomba (a fat, short-grain rice that most resembles risotto). It should have real saffron and be made in a paella (a flat, open, rounded steel pan with handles). The valenciana — the traditional recipe that dates back to the 15th century — includes chicken, rabbit, beans, and, at times: snails, sweet paprika, and artichokes. The marisco (seafood served in the shell) doesn’t have such an exacting composition. And note: There’s no such thing as paella asturiana, paella andaluz, or paella catalana (although arròs catalan is a traditional cousin). The members of Wikipaella say it may be a nice meal, but just don’t call it what it’s not.
While these points are agreed upon, there are still some contentions. Some aficionados don’t agree with the concept of the mixta — a blend of seafood and land meats. Many purists insist paella is best enjoyed with a spoon, straight from the pan. And there should be socarrat — crispy, toasted rice at the bottom of the dish that explodes with flavor. A few even believe the only true place to experience an authentic paella is in the birthplace — Valencia, the city and state. Its water and elevation are the bonafide secret to the perfect paella.
Whatever the case, here are our favorite places across Spain to dig in and try real paella. ¡Buen provecho!
Admittedly, the curb appeal isn’t so hot and the interior is a bit on the cluttered side, with walls lined in local ceramic dishes. But you didn’t come here for the design — you came for the food. And you won’t be disappointed by one of Valencia’s oldest restaurants. All the arroces (rice dishes) are the right blend of crunchy and moist, and cooked to perfection. Which is perhaps why it’s one of the first eateries to earn the Wikipaella seal of approval on the door.
Paella at La Pepica (Photo: Jenna Mahoney)
When it comes to institutions, this is an absolute. Opened in 1898, the oversize beachfront restaurant has hosted artists, kings, celebrities, and — most notably — Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about the eatery in The Dangerous Summer. For the best paella, go during the week on the late side (3:30pm); being so popular can sometimes have its downside.
Bergamonte, in Valencia (Photo: Bergamonte)
Technically, this barraca (the traditional Valenciana thatch-roofed home) is part of a private tennis club, but the paellas are so sought-after that the house’s interior is open to the public. The decor is as traditional as the rice dishes. Reservations are strongly recommended for this restaurant, which is about 20 minutes from the city center.
It’s a trek from the city, about 45 minutes by car, but the rice at Levante doesn’t disappoint. Don’t let the sleek decor and extensive wine list mislead you — this is a second-generation restaurant that crafted rice dishes for the royal families of Spain and England. In fact, the chef is the guy whom James Beard-winner José Andrés calls with arroces-related questions. Reservations and paella preorders are recommended. A second, newer location in central Valencia doesn’t have the same sense of history.
Madrid’s La Barraca (Photo: La Barraca)
The landlocked capital isn’t known for great arroces, but this institution, which dates back to 1935, prepares dishes in the tradition that makes its namesake proud. The founding family and current owners are valencianos, after all. There is a break from custom, however: The restaurant serves lunch and dinner. Reservations are suggested for both seatings.
The two locations offer delectable arroces as they should be — with socarrat. Each spot is equally exceptional, but the Gràcia location is preferred for its homey feel and the fact that it’s a more difficult to find. Read: Other diners are locals or those in the know.
The Basque Culinary Center (Photo: Basque Culinary Center)
The Basque country set within the Atlantic Bay of Biscay-facing mountains of Northern Spain has its own rich gastronomic traditions that are light on the rice. However, at this ultramodern teaching outpost helmed by the innovative Luis Arrufat, who has worked at the likes of El Bulli, offers a surprisingly valenciano (note: ritualistic) approach to paella. Reservations are required and seating is seasonal.
Bonus: La Barraca Negra, Valencia (aka La Barraca Aquella)
Think of it as the “A-Team” of paella. If you can find it and you can snag a table (which are by invite only), you’ll be treated to a rice dish featuring individually turned and toasted grains. Similarly, the menu is a single paella of what’s in season. Try making friends with guys who have its chef on speed dial at Valencia’s traditional tapas spots like Casa Jomi and Casa Montaña.
Jenna Mahoney is a Brooklyn-based travel editor and lifestyle writer, and the author of “Small Apartment Hacks.”