On Sundays, We Eat Paella

A tiled sign reads "Casa Carmela"offering the name of the paella restaurant we enjoyed in Valencia Spain.

“Get up.”
“But I’m tired. I don’t want to get up.
“But, it’s time to go. ‘Cause if we don’t make it to the next Metro, then we don’t make it to the Paella Place as soon as it opens. And we already know they’re full because they weren’t taking reservations yesterday, so we have to be there when it opens because you know how much I want this paella.”
“UGH. Fine.”

Valencia: Home of Paella

Used to the hustle and bustle of tourismatic Barcelona, I’d assumed Paella, the regional feature of Valencia would be available at any and all times. May it be known to you that the majority of Spain doesn’t play by Barcelona’s touristy rules.

We were in Spain in the off season of March. No matter how much I wanted the beaches basking in Spanish sun to be warm, I wasn’t delusional enough to make the feeling real. A coastal wind would kick up to chatter my teeth with the chill. We’d booked Valencia with hopes for good luck for a warm front, but alas, it wasn’t to be. Even if we didn’t get the weather, we’d get the food, right?

Wrong.

In Valencia, paella isn’t just the feature, it’s the staple. Sundays are the days the family gathers around Grandmother’s table to share the behemoth dish of golden colored rice over wine and merriment. A nice long brunch -though they wouldn’t call it something so bourgeois, a little siesta, and you’re ready to start the weekend. We foreigners should be happy restaurants offer it at all instead of leaving us to beg our way into a Spanish home. They are the gatekeepers, they make the rules, and the rules are that you can have paella on Sunday afternoon along with the rest of the region.

But Will We Make It?

I’d picked my mark with a couple of backups. Number one on the list, Casa Carmela. We have from exactly 1pm to 4pm to eat somewhere. The above ground Metro caused only a few heart attacks. Speeding along through half the city one minute, then inching along block by block when we reached the beachfront. Should only be two more stops based on the map, but then it veers left when it should go straight. Are they trying to kill me? 12:53 the clock reads. I know it’s just around the next corner. We could get off now and walk the last few blocks or wait for this rogue metro to drop us off at the stop right out front. Trust the map or the metro? Less than 10 minutes until open and….

“Let’s get off.”

I consider we’re walking too fast for Sunday’s lackadaisical decorum, but I don’t know what’s ahead and I don’t want to wait. 12:57 -the sign is 5 blocks ahead. And a couple coming down the street from the opposite direction. We must get there first!

But Southern charm wins out. 1:03 and we hold the door open for the pretty Spanish couple to go in ahead of us. I count off the seats at the bar while they greet the hostess. 2 seats taken, 6 left. As long as the bar isn’t reserved too, we’re fine. I breathe a sigh of relief. The couple ahead of us has reservations and follow Hostess #1 back to the large tables where the groups sit.

“Hola! Tienen una reservacion?” Hostess #2 greets us with a friendly smile.
“No,” I shake my head apologetically. “Podemos el bar?” I query in broken Spanish.

Bless it all. We get another smile and a nod.

Paella: A Sunday Feast

The fresh seafood cold case and wine fridge at Casa Carmela.The tension finally slides away as we take our seats. The stool faces the wine fridge and ice pack of fresh catches. I’m drooling when the waitress comes for our drink orders.

“Vino roja, por favor.” I ask.
Our server is middle aged. Late 40s. early 50s. Spanish to the core with fine dark hair and tan skin. She lowers her eyes at me and shakes her head. “No.”
“No?” I ask again for concurrence.
“No,” she emphasizes with a frown.
I try again. “Cava?”
Her look brightens. She winks and blows me a kiss, “Si.”

We start with a plate of cured fish while we wait on our seafood paella. Good paella takes time. Lots of time. The small lumps of shriveled flesh are a far cry from the vibrant sashimi I’m used to when eating fish and fish alone. They’re brown little bits, and I’m wondering how we made such a grievous error. Until I taste an anchovy and the salty, meaty, oily morsel melts on my tongue. How can something so small pack so much flavor? Has tuna ever tasted as good as when it’ laced with this perfect brine?

A TV showing 7 paella pans cooking atop wood burning stoves, and the cook in the process of making another.The small bits were too much of a tease. I need something substantial soon or I’ll go insane. I take a stroll to the bathroom to let out some nervous energy, and I pass the TV screen showing the works in progress. I can see seven gargantuan paella pans lined up over open wood flames, and the chef working on the next ones in line. I’m mesmerized, and the Maitre d’ passing by notices. He taps my shoulder and whisks me straight back to the kitchen where I can see them in person. Smoke and saffron overwhelm the air, and the dizzy ecstasy returns in full force as I wander back to the front in a daze.

And finally, it’s here! The 18″ aluminum pan is filled with perfectly plump rice pearls and prawns as big as lobsters I’ve eaten. Timidly, I hold up my phone and motion for a picture. Our server rolls her eyes at me, “Ah yes, you are indeed the first to ever ask for this service.”

We gorged. Bits of scallops and clams marble the yellow grains. Salty and sweet. Somehow I didn’t think it was possible to caramelize rice, but there’s no other explanation for the flavor of this dish. I know it’s impossible to fit half of this spread in my stomach, and yet I try anyway. Bite after bite goes down, and, as usual after an unspeakably good meal, I wonder “How and why does anything in the world taste this good?”

A pan full of fresh seafood paella displayed for photos.

Who knows? But I’m glad it does. Finally, I can’t fit another grain. The server raises her eyebrows, and my boyfriend and I sigh in defeat. I say a small prayer of thanks as she whisks the pan away.

We order another round of drinks and some sorbet to settle ourselves down from the full body high that is post-paella lunch. Fate intervenes, and a new couple comes through the door jut as we’re vacating the seats. They don’t have reservations either, and the hostess offers an apologetic nod as she informs them of the wait. We motion at the group, and the couple comes over. With a nod and smile, we say without words, “Welcome to Sunday. May you too eat and be blessed.”

Leave a Reply