The British chef Jamie Oliver created a tempest in the kitchen last week when he offered a recipe for Paella that included chorizo in the sofrito, the flavored oil that begins the process of cooking the rice and other ingredients. Social media lit up like a pinball machine with tweets lambasting the Naked Chef for a violations of some sort of food commandment. It is not as if this globally popular cook had never tasted paella in Spain.
This put me in mind of all those other instances in which the authenticity of a particular way of preparing a dish stands for defending the authenticity of some group’s historical or social integrity. In this case, the good people of Valencia were impugned by the addition of a Spanish sausage to a Spanish dish. They are their paella, and their paella is Valencia.
This of utter nonsense, of course. It is romantic nationalism of the most egregious sort and stinks of the exclusionary nativist bullshit that is all too common in our current political moment. The truth is that there are hundreds of ways of preparing paella. Every province, every town, every restaurant, every home cook plays with the combination of braising rice in a flavored oil and flavored broth over high heat with other vegetable and proteins added along the way. According to David Rosengarten in a recent article in Savour, the dish “probably dates to the early 1800s and consists of saffron-scented rice cooked with rabbit, chicken, local snails called vaquetes, and three types of beans: a broad string bean called ferraura, a lima-like dried bean called garrofo, and a white bean called tavella.[Saveur, “The Art of Paella” (accessed 21 July 2015)]” This recipe worked well for over a hundred years as a rice dish cooked outdoors over a wood fire. The growth of tourism on Spain’s East Coast beginning in the 1960s changed all that. Tourists balked at the snails and the beans, inspiring variations in the protein ingredients. The cooking moved indoors to gas ovens. No more smokey wood! Today, a restaurant menu will offer paella Valenciana, and then as many as nine variations. The smoke of the original fire now replaced by the addition of smoked paprika, the main flavoring ingredient, by the way, in chorizo!
My authority for all things Spanish kitchen is Penelope Casas, an American who met her Spanish husband while studying abroad in the 1960s, lived her entire adult life in Spain, and published her seminal food ethnography, The Foods and Wines of Spain in 1972. It is still in print. She went on educate English readers to the variations of paella (1999), de-mystify tapas (1985), and celebrate Spanish home cooking (2005). She died in 2013. Even a cursory glance at the explorations of Paella across Spain in both restaurants and home kitchens shows that far fro being the regimented recipe of the imagination of Valenianian regionalists, paella is a canvas that is used to explore and celebrate the variety of Spanish ingredients. There is even one paella, prepared by the Clarisa nuns of the Santa Clara convent in Briviesca in the province of Burgos in the heart of Castile, in which the sofrito is flavored with chorizo. It also features green and black olives with red peppers, peas, and ham [Casas, Paella!: the Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain, 1999, page 106-7)].
I guess they don’t know how to cook paella either