The elusive and mythical paella

Unbelievable, in over ten years (wow this is an old blog) I have never dedicated a post to paella. This must be corrected at once.

You see, paella -the right paella- is a divine dish, it combines earthy flavors with spices, and rice, what is there not to like? Now to be clear I am speaking here about the original paella, Valencia paella which has as main ingredients: chicken, rabbit, snails, flat green beans, and local flat white beans, Garrofó. Ah yes, I hear the murmurs about seafood, and chorizo, and all kinds of ingredients… in time, my dear reader, in time.

Like everybody else in Spain and around the world, I have always eaten paella. But it was not until the early nineties that I started travelling regularly to Valencia that I discovered the real deal. Once you have that experience you will never feel the same about paella. I was lucky to have friends and customers that indulged me in taking me to real paella places, where it is prepared outdoors, on open fires of orange tree wood!

Although the first reported recipe for paella is from the mid 19th C, it was the Moors who brought rice to the Albufera lagoon outside Valencia. Also, the word paella comes from the old Arabic pallac (sp?) which means leftovers. Therefore, it is understandable that the original recipes had no pork nor seafood ingredients!

If you travel Spain’s Eastern shore you are going to find hundreds of rice recipes, with seafood, black rice, with all sorts of ingredients -but they are not called paella, but arroz negro, arroz a banda, arroz caldoso, whatever whatever…

To make paella you need to meet a few requirements: ideally you have an open fire, you also need the paella, which is the name of the flat pan used to make the namesake dish. As far as the ingredients, forget it, you are not going to find the exact ingredients, bomba rice has little starch compared to the closest equivalent, Arborio, etc., etc. Paella is a totally local dish, appreciate that and move on.

I had often been paella sous chef, but I did not venture into making my own paellas until I had a gas grill and a paella pan in Boston around ten years ago. After leaving Boston I had a paella making hiatus until recently. As my followers will know, I bought a grill a few months ago, and then I bought a paella pan at the great purveyor of Spanish food, La Tienda. I love making paella, even if it is a mere imitation paella, it is as close as you can get outside Valencia. Let me know in the comments if you want my recipe and American ingredients, or if you have any other comments.


I discovered Valencia on a business trip in 1992, and I have loved it ever since. Valencia is Spain’s third largest city at over a million inhabitants, it is the largest / busiest port in the Mediterranean and has been for centuries. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately it remains fairly unknown to most folks on the tourist circuit. Because of this, it maintains a certain undiscovered quality to it, a small town feeling.

Valencia is home to the delicious paella, to the “painter of light”, Joaquín Sorolla, the brilliant architect Calatrava, it was the last home for El Cid (check out the film with Charlton Heston), etc. It is a city rich, very rich in culture, history, literature, architecture, and so forth. I have been lucky to keep great, close friends, including my PhD thesis director!

I hadn’t been to Valencia in a year, when I spent a day walking around and catching up on the Museo de Bellas Artes. This time I have had the luxury of spending a whole week here, so I have squeezed every moment here to see and do all my favorite things, which include:

  • Walking around
  • Having breakfast at my favorite coffee shop (ok, I’ll tell you… Café Aquarium)
  • Eating paella by the beach
  • Drinking Horchata (made from a tiger nuts)
  • Eating fartons, a delicious pastry, in my case, stuffed with chocolate.
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Running along the old river bed (after a dramatic and deadly overflow, they made a safer channel for the river, sparing the city of further damages.

It has been a very busy but rewarding week and I even got to catch up with one of my old students which is always enriching and fun.

With the AVE high speed train, Valencia is now only a short two hour ride from Madrid – at 189 mph! So there is no reason not to jump on a train and spend a couple of days in this great city.


Museo Sorolla

Literally a block away from my parents’ flat in Madrid is the Museo Sorolla. A little jewel of a museum. It is the urban palazzo of turn of the century painter Joaquín Sorolla which now houses his museum.

Once cleared the gate you are welcomed into a small refreshing garden. An oasis in the middle of downtown Madrid, surrounded by apartment buildings, shops and offices.

If being in the garden seems like a departure from the city, walking into the museum takes you to Sorolla’s beloved Mediterranean coast, where he painted most of his oeuvre. Some of the paintings are massive, but more important is the artists’ grasp of light. You see, light on the Mediterranean is quite different from light anywhere else – if you have not seen it, you will have to trust me on this one. Sorolla captures that light, that breeze, that heat, and puts it on the canvas, which is the reason he is called the “painter of light”. While some people label him an impressionist, he is beyond impressionism. The house also holds a lot of art that was given to him, his great collection of Valencia ceramic, where he was from, and many of his random knick-knacks.

Since I was a teenager, having the museum so close to home was a blessing and a curse. I did not always go into the museum, I just stayed in the garden, reading. But knowing that it was there I took it for granted and did not visit for a long time. A couple of years ago my sister Susana and I took our niece and nephew for a nice visit. This May, during a coffee run, I sneaked in for a few moments of escape.

Cities and Friends

Besides the enriching experience of teaching, the other benefit of being a teacher is the holidays it comes with. No, we don’t make bank, but not even French government employees get our kind of time off. So after unwinding in Chapel Hill and going on a nice ride with Rocinante (see previous posts) I jumped “the pond” to visit my family in Madrid.

I know I am not original when I say that cities are like people, at least my relationship with them is similar. My relationship with Madrid is that of an old friend and lover. We know each other’s dirty little secrets, but we respect each other like the old friends we are. So coming to Madrid is always special.

One of the first visits I do is to Patxi Navarro. A dear, dear friend from my financial services days. We share a twenty three year friendship. Together we founded the Asociacion A. de Amantes del Escorial since we are both passionate about that monastery/palace/school/village. It is always great to catch up and hear about his life. Another obligatory meeting is with Andrea, another dear college friend who has been there through thick and thin, we had a nice lunch at a neighbourhood “menu” restaurant. A third key friend and one that deserves extra credit when I see him is Felipe Pérez de Madrid, “Pipe”, “The Pipe”, as he is from Valencia. We had a quick coffee in between trains for him, just enough to make sure everything is ok and have a quick laugh. Gracias amigo.

After a few days in town, I was blessed with the visit of Mark Miller and Matthieu, two of my dearest, closest and best friends. We went to university together, Matthieu was a groomsman in my first wedding and Best Man at my second wedding, where Mark was the usher. I had not seen Matthieu since celebrating New Year’s ’08 in NY when Mark, the most gracious and generous host, arranged a spectacular party. Since he is in NY I have had the chance to see Mark more regularly, but not since moving to Chapel Hill.

We spent three days together, eating, walking around the city, drinking, smoking cigars, eating, walking around the city, drinking and smoking cigars. We had paella, roast lamb, jamón, tortilla, garlic shrimp, lots of tapas, wine and coffee. We went to my favorite places, including Del Diego where we met comedian Leo Harlem! It was fantastic to catch up, to share some of the secrets of my old friend Madrid with some of my other old friends, to have a good laugh, good discussions, reminisce and talk about our futures.

Besides the enriching experience of teaching, another benefit of being a teacher is meeting students that eventually become friends. Two days after Mark and Matthieu left, I reunited with Jenny whom I had not seen in a year and a half. Since she graduated from Walnut Hill and I went to see her dance at Mount Holyoke. She is spending the summer in Valencia and came to Madrid for the weekend. We had burgers at my favorite restaurant in Madrid, Alfredos Barbacoa and it was great to catch up, have a good laugh, a good discussion, reminisce and talk about our futures.

My visits to Madrid are few, far between and shorter than I would like them to be, so I never get to see all my friends and family. But one morning coffee I always have is with my godmother Isabel, “Isita”, she is brilliant, funny and wonderful and her advice is always spot on, prejudice free and caring. I love her.

So in one week in Madrid: I reunited with the city, the oldest of friends, I reunited with old, university friends and with new friends – and with my godmother.



Casa Botín

Casa Botín



Comedian Leo Harlem

Comedian Leo Harlem

Fernando jr. and Fernando del Diego

Fernando jr. and Fernando del Diego

Del Diego

Del Diego

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

Julieta en Alfredos

Julieta en Alfredos

Here is to friends, I salute you.

Photo creds: Mark Miller (except Julieta)

Winter break

Happy New Year!!

Rocinante finally went to spend the Winter at Boston Harley-Davidson. They have changed ownership since I promised not to return, and I believe in second (and third) chances so there she is since mid December. I can’t wait to get her out and start new adventures as soon as it warms up.

As for me, I came to Madrid to spend the break with my family. My parents, my sisters, my niece and nephew,  and my friends. During my free time I am correcting midyear exams and writing and submitting PhD. applications. I am about halfway done,  it is very time consuming as it needs to be done correctly and carefully, and despite that I still slip.

Valencia finally got a high speed train line, so I went to spend the day with friends and to eat the authentic paella (chicken and rabbit if you must know). In the beautiful weather I got a ride on Pipe’s Harley which made me miss Rocinante.

I also had time to visit Alcala de Henares with my dear friend and antique art restorer Jaime, and to have the annual meeting of the Asociacion A de amantes del Escorial. Held as is the tradition at La Cueva, followed by a night walk around the monastery.

As the applications get sent there is a mixture of relief in having done everything you could have done, and of anxiety waiting for the news. What is it? The need to know and the fear of knowing.

So to keep me busy I finished Zen and the Art  of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I loved and I have jumped into Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, just what I needed.

Now the big silence until we start hearing news… In the meantime enjoy some photos of my break