Is this a Paella or just my deconstructed dish of chicken, mussels and saffron rice? How important is tradition when it comes to a national dish? (Spain of course in this instance). Should it constrain us or free us to improvise?
They say Paella was once a meal eaten outdoors, made in a flat pan over a fire pulled together from foraged sticks. It was a meal eaten by workers in the fields from what could be caught and added to with rice and herbs, (often rabbit and snails). Somehow it evolved into a dish of many elements, but held together by rice, garlic and saffron.
I've been told by a friend just back from Madrid that as the dish is originally from Valencia, everywhere else, you just call it rice - arroz con pollo y langostinos, for example. Only in Valencia is it Paella. In Codoba, you order rice with...
Now that's taking local appellation very seriously. Close relatives of the Paella, or rice cooked with other "stuff" (as a one pot dish) are everywhere.
The best polo I know is Shireen Polo - rice, chicken, slivered pistachio and almonds, orange rind, carrots, saffron, the whole sweetened with a dangerous amount of sugar which makes the golden colours glisten. It's definitely made for an occasion.
Is a Jumbalaya just a saffron-free Paella? Is Biryani just a young sibling of the Pilau? (Didn't some Persians drop down into India some centuries ago?) Is Paella just Shireen Polo without the nuts? There is certainly different rice used in each dish, perhaps different spicing but ultimately, I guess, it's down to provenance, locality, country, "terroir". So in Australia, what do we call it?
And is there ever a life situation, gastronomic or other, that can't be illustrated by a Seinfeld episode? Compare dumpy George with the sexy, exuberant Kramer.
George Costanza: Paella? It’s a mélange of meat and fish with rice. Very tasty.
Kramer: Have you ever had really good paella? Oh, it's an orgiastic feast for the senses. A festival of sights, sounds and colours.
So I have a nice robust chicken, some locally sourced mussels, tiny broad beans picked that morning by my brother Jean-Pierre, (grown by his wife Liz), and enough saffron left with which to be generous before my next "gift box" arrives.
As usual, I'm with Kramer, the hipster doofus. (Seinfeld, season 5, eps 18 & 19)
And it's a very difficult dish to make in small quantities!
Georges mother Estelle Costanza: What am I gonna do with all this Paella?
(And this very week, in the Spectator, I read about Paella. paella-five-top-tips
Zeitgeist! We concur and I further learn you eat it with a spoon, which I feel very comfortable with. Yes, yes, the Spectator is a monstrously conservative mag. It can, unfortunately, be very amusing. Trust me, I balance it with The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times et al and my natural bolshy tendencies,)
So tradition or improvisation? A close friend and I should/could host a cooking show. No, not The Two Fat Ladies but the Traditionalist and the Iconoclast.
Join the conversation.
Comment👇. Are you a traditionalist or an iconoclast?
My Hervey Bay scallops, grilled with herb butter and espelette pepper. I miss the orange "coral" but they're pristinely trimmed and easy! (Waechtersbach serving platter with pierced draining plate, early 1950s.)
Went to lunch recently at a new restaurant. Slick decor, "tribal" tattoos, local gin, a hint of "shabby-chic", a wine list with just enough "natural" wines to be in the zone, a tempting menu of politically-correct provenance. It was easy to have trust in the next few hours.
There were some neat, small starters and a nice idea with lamb to follow - a slow-cooked braised shoulder on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses.
My friend said "Lamb, pomegranate, pickled lemon? That sounds nice."
Our order was taken and for main course, we requested the lamb.
The waiter said "You mean the slow-cooked braised shoulder of lamb, on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses? Good choice." *
Strangely, when asked about bharat and nduja, our waiter said he'd have to ask the kitchen.
It was a warm spring day so we settled for a chilled glass of trendy grüner veltliner rather than a red and played around with our starters - some better than average (much better) falafels, excellent Hervey Bay scallops and grilled eggplant with pine nuts.
Plates cleared, our main course arrived and was put down for us to share. The waiter said, "We have here your slow-cooked braised shoulder of lamb on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses."
Now I could have said "Well that's a relief because that's what the menu said and what I was expecting." Sarcasm however, would have ruined the mood.
But is this just too much information, too often?
Do we need this? Do you think this is good service? Incidentally, I'd love to go back and have more of the menu but how about "Can I describe any dish for you?" rather than automatically getting a full shopping list, cooking instructions and culinary road map?
*And what branch of people management teaches this art of positive reenforcement. Our lamb was a "good choice" but at the next table the chargrilled octopus with black rice and foraged samphire was surprisingly also a "good choice". If I'd been having a low self- esteem day, I would have been confused.
Tell me if I'm being difficult. 👇
My favourite glasses*, on the windowsill the next day after dinner, are waiting to be washed by hand. These don't "dish-wash", the shape is awkward and they're old enough to suffer pitting from the machine detergent. I wash and leave them to drain on one of those spongy towelling mats.
I love the cooking and the planning. I love the experimenting. I love the gatherings. I love the memories the next day as I dump the empty wine bottles in the bin. I love the putting away of my toys we have played with that evening. I love the calm meditation later over the ironing. But let's face it, even when there are only two of us, it's still work - the price of pleasure- the wages of sin.
Now to share. I've been a little overwhelmed lately by hospital visits, taxi servicing, consoling, listening, empathising. I'm bloody exhausted.
But over the last eight days, we've been fed and cared for at a casual lunch over-looking the beach, after a Vernissage** (a dazzling post art gallery opening dinner for 12) and a Sunday evening table of five with very amusing friends.
Two artists at work.
Left: Jo - lazy lunch on the verandah. We could be anywhere from Pt Elliott to Pondicherry, from Bali to Bora Bora.
Right: Liz - sumptuous atmosphere with cleverly re-purposed "stuff" from auctions and junk shops.
Here were three days out of eight when I didn't have to think, didn't have to face an untidy kitchen when I came to make my jentacular*** cup of tea, didn't have to unload the dishwasher. Bliss. Can you imagine how helpful, how fabulous that was?
Remember this. It's so easy to add a couple of people to an evening meal or put together a sandwich or salad lunch. It could really make a difference to someone's week.
*Glasses - The tall ones - Holmgaard Princess, mid 60s. (Catch sight of them in Darling, 1965, Julie Christie, Dirk Bogart, Laurence Harvey.) Lovely, but admittedly a touch unstable; only used with certain friends. Rear, Kosta Boda Isadora, mid 80s.
**Vernisage - the French expression for an art gallery opening. I've heard it used here sometimes. (It's possibly from the early 1800s, when artists could varnish or put finishing touches to their work before opening to the general public.)
***Jentacular - You can't live without this word. It relates to any pre-breakfast ritual - a walk, a cup of tea, the crossword...
Comment 👇 and help out a friend.