“In Spain, Paella is like an accent. Depending on the region you’re from, the ingredients change.” – Annie Sibonney
One of the most popular Spanish dishes is Paella. It’s typical of those great one-pot meals that many indigenous cultures do so well. My country has Pelau which requires rice, savoury meat and vegetables. Similarly, Paella begins with rice; and in this episode, Annie Sibonney’s first stop is a traditional rice field in L’Albufera, Valencia. Unlike the last episode, Basque Country, where Annie did all her cooking in fancy kitchens; this time, she helped a professional guide named Manolo, to make Paella in an old barraca. That is a house where farmers used to live, work and store their crop. The Paella is usually cooked by men and like most things in this country, doubles as a social event. So much so, that the custom is to eat the Paella out of the same flat, round pan in which it’s cooked. This particular one was made with chicken, duck, rabbit and snails.
The next stop on this Paella expedition was a saffron field in Consuegra. My whole life, I’ve known of saffron as a key ingredient to Indo-Caribbean cooking. Heck, you’d be crazy to make a pot of dhal without it! However, I never knew where or what it came from, until this episode. Saffron the spice is the stamen of its flower. There’s no mechanical harvesting or processing, as that might damage the product. Blooms are gently picked by hand and it is painstaking work. Annie’s next stop was Alicante, to visit one of Spain’s culinary rock stars, Chef Maria José San Román, AKA the “Queen of Saffron” who prepared her famous Seafood Paella. With scientific precision and a very good command of the English language, Chef Maria not only cooked but explained everything she did. Our presenter certainly had fun on our behalf. Her eagerness to eat the Seafood Paella showed that it must have not only smelled but tasted delicious!
You cannot visit Florence, Italy without going to Dario Cecchini’s Antica Macelleria Cecchini. In the same way, you cannot make a TV show about Spanish Paella without a visit to Restaurante Levante in Benisano, Valencia. Don Rafael Vidal, the Paella King has only one specialty, Paella. His Paella Valenciana, for which tourists can book lessons, didn’t require scientific measurements like Chef Maria’s but there certainly was a very specific method. Paired with a Valencian wine, Annie sat down to enjoy the fruits of her labours in the hot kitchen, with the dapper don himself. The last stop on this Paella tour was Barcelona (¡Visca Catalunya!) where Annie looked on as Chef Joan Escribá prepared his Fideua with squid, crayfish and monkfish. The big difference is that unlike every other Paella recipe featured in this episode, toasted vermicelli noodles was used instead of rice. Chef Joan had some other inventive if unusual cooking methods but that didn’t make his Paella any less tasty.
The only discernible misstep in this episode was that there was no specific mention of the names of Chef Maria’s or Chef Joan’s restaurants. Google came to the rescue but it would have been helpful if we were told. The high production values established in the premiere episode carried over to this one. The colours were so beautiful and every scene was polished. There have been some mutterings online about Annie. However, she is not a professional TV presenter and this isn’t just another gig for her. Travelling through Spain and teaching about its cuisine/culture is what she does for years now. Hopefully she’ll continue to do so long enough for me to experience Relish Culinary Tours for myself. (It’s every foodie for herself, people.) The next episode is Madrid: Dusk ‘til Dine.