My friend Geles Ribelles, a well-known travel and lifestyle journalist, lives in Valencia, the home of paella. We met on a warm October day, just in time for lunch, and she promised to treat me to the best paella in the country. I couldn’t wait!
We drove close to Al Bufera Lake on the outskirts of the city. It is beautiful, and the surrounding land is lush with rice and orange fields. There are old villages with old houses, water channels with boats, a little church atop a sudden hill, painterly sunsets and open roads. Somewhere in the middle of it all stands L’Alter, a kitchen so basic and small that it’s hard to believe the New York Times recommended it!
I am vegetarian, so Geles ordered an all-veggie paella for us on the phone. By the time we drove in, our platter was ready. See? all set to be loaded into the boot of the car.
At Geles’s lovely villa, we enjoyed it with a glass of red wine and a hearty salad drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
I had, quite unfairly, imagined the paella to be a milder version of Indian pulao. In a very broad sense it is, since rice is the main ingredient. But once I dug in, I realised how unmistakably Spanish it was, loaded with seasonal vegetables that were tender and crunchy at the same time, and spiced with saffron and paprika.
The smoky flavour of orange wood gets into every grain of the rice, and the perfect balance of paprika and saffron makes it an absolute classic. Did you know that the dish is a Sunday staple in Spain, and is mostly cooked by the men of the house? It takes a good hour to cook traditional paella.
The best part about eating paella, I now know, is the scrapings that you tease off the pan—that’s where the slightly charred “masala” clings. Add to all this the lazy Valencia sunshine which smells faintly of oranges—not sure if that’s thanks to the orange fields nearby or the effect of the wine, but it’s the kind of meal that soothes you into a siesta.
Interestingly, once we were done, Geles set the paella pan out by the gate of her villa. Somebody from the eatery whizzed by to pick it up. No washing up, no fuss!
If you’re going to Spain, don’t miss Valencia. If you’re going to Valencia, don’t miss the paella at L’Alter.
Text & photos: Shubhra Krishan