From paella to Penedès: understanding Spain’s delights

Spanish food and wine is vastly more diverse than people give it credit for, says Nina Caplan. Here she recounts a trip to Spain that reinforced just why the country's cuisine deserves closer examination

Words by Nina Caplan

Photography by William Craig Moyes

Paella – Spain
Paella hails from Valencia, but remains a misunderstood dish outside of Spain

Like a casserole or terrine, a paella is not actually something you eat: in fact, it would break your teeth. In all three cases, the name is a synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole: the paella, which is a large, shallow metal dish, becomes indelibly associated with the rice, protein and socarrat it contains. What is socarrat? I’ll get to that.

Until I met Quique Dacosta, a Valencian chef who has three Michelin stars and an overriding obsession with rice in pans, I had a low opinion of paella. But, for me, that’s Spain: charismatic personalities energetically busting assumptions, usually over dinner. I’ve often wondered whether there’s a relationship between the country’s enormous number of indigenous grape varieties – more than anywhere except Italy and France – and the number of talented individuals whose output is as unlikely as it is interesting. I like to think so.

Quique Dacosta – paella
Michelin-starred chef Quique Dacosta, master of paella and arroz (rice) dishes

Brits generally think paella is a concoction of bright yellow rice, prawns and dried-out chicken that is Spain’s national dish. Which isn’t just an insult to Spanish cooking; it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of a country unlikely to have any national dish whatsoever.

Really, what is national in Spain, apart from the legislature and some nasty memories of the Franco regime? Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia have their own languages, while in Valencia they speak their own dialect of Catalan. Indeed, green, rainswept Galicia has more in common with the UK than with the chalky soils and Moorish palaces of Andalusia. Like us, the Galicians have Celt ancestry and a wilful belief that their damp climate is conducive to making great wine, although they have, to date, more proof than we do.

As for paella, it comes from Valencia, and to suggest that its ingredients generate some debate is like saying that the Inquisition was a little harsh on heretics. The tawdry British version is a pitiful shortcut, designed to make the world safe, dull and free of surprises – and that doesn’t entice me at all.

Arroz – paella
The word "paella" actually refers to the large metal dish in which it's cooked

In Valencia, several years ago, I was taken out on the reed-green waters of Albufera National Park in a wooden boat as shallow and flat-bottomed as a paella pan, to float peacefully past rice fields that were probably first planted by the Moors who conquered this area in the eighth century. Who knew the Spanish grew rice? Here was yet another Spain, as new to me as the wines I drank there: aromatic Merseguera made inland by Toni Sarrión of Bodega Mustiguillo; or, from farther south, Javi Revert’s Simeta, an elegant light red from a variety called Arcos.

When we drove into the mountains, to eat rabbit and snail paella (which purists would presumably say wasn’t paella at all), we tried Casa Castillo Pie Franco, from near Murcia: a rich red Monastrell, vibrant with spice. The paella was cooked, as is traditional, on a roaring fire of vine twigs, which I very much hope came from those same vines. This was the opposite of a shortcut: the world expanding from a grain of rice.

There are also roaring fires in Quique’s London restaurant, Arros QD, but “if it’s not the dish made in Valencia,” he says, “it’s not paella, but arroz [rice].” Your arroz can be caldoso (in broth) or meloso (creamy), and he makes them all, artfully layered with additions from octopus to pork.

He has created versions that are one wafer-thin layer thick, so that instead of the traditional pan into which everyone digs their spoon, each diner can choose their own paella – sorry, arroz. (These are in fact served in a rectangular dish called a chapa.) You can even order an entire dish of socarrat, the delicious, crispy base layer that every paella lover covets.

Rías Baixas – paella
The Rías Baixas region in Galicia is best known for its Albariño, but there are 11 other varieties grown there, including Caíño Tinto, Treixadura and Loureira

Arros QD’s wine list, designed by Jose Balado, also upends assumptions. “Quique is Mediterranean, so I thought why not put Mediterranean wine at the beginning of the list?” he says. So he started east, with Murcia, Valencia and Catalonia. “It was a bit risky, because some guests say straight away, ‘I want a Rioja, where is Rioja? What is Murcia, what is Valencia? But it worked well.” I’ll say.

There are Riojas, of course, but Jose also ranges the country, unearthing impassioned winemakers and lesser-known varieties: Bobal from Bruno Murciano, former head sommelier of the London Ritz and Sarrión’s neighbour in Utiel-Requena, or a fantastically obscure red, Caíño Tinto, made by Bodegas Albamar in Rías Baixas, which is known mostly for the white Albariño.

So many Spaniards seem to be warming old ideas until they bubble

There’s also Forcada, “similar to Chardonnay but higher in acidity and more aromatic, it’s a lovely wine,” which is one of the discoveries of a project by Miguel Torres which involved advertisements in local papers asking Catalan vinegrowers to alert him to old vines they couldn’t identify; there were hundreds of responses. Several of these varieties have had to be given new names because nobody remembers the old ones.

Like me, Jose is a fan of Torres, despite its size: not only are the top wines, like Salmos (from Priorat) and Mas La Plana (a Cabernet Sauvignon from Miguel Torres’ home region of Penedès) excellent, but it’s not everybody who uses their influence to help rediscover their patrimony.

Then there’s Noelia de Paz, making rich, pear-flavoured white from Albarín at Bodega LaOsa or Elías López Montero in La Mancha, who is doing amazing things with Airén, the grape usually grown in vast quantities for bulk sale and distillation into Spanish brandy.

So many Spaniards seem to be warming old ideas until they bubble, then adding to them so that they expand into something new and marvellous. Their homeland may be as misunderstood as their so-called national dish, but both are places where wonders occur.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018.