Nothing gets my heart racing faster than experiencing flamenco on stage, but on this night the roles were reversed and I happened to be on the performing end. The women glided effortlessly on the hardwood floor before heading back into the changing room. Carolina held the ruffled edges of her dotted fire engine red skirt in one hand while gently wiping the sweat off her forehead with the other. This was my cue and for the next five minutes I would perform a solo Rumba Gitana number in front of a captive audience. I tugged firmly on my black vest, took a deep breath, and on I went.
Male flamenco performers are hard to come by so to be able to perform with my kin, Hugo, seemed like a dream come true. My brother and I had been performing with a group for over three years and the hard work was finally paying off.
Spanish gypsy Flamenco was born at a crossroad of many cultures, with a fierce tenacity painted by bold and delicate, yet assertive strokes. While some aspects may appear sensual and whimsical at times, it can also be soft — as personified by the palmas sordas — before suddenly switching to accenting fuertes that accompany the thundering footwork, otherwise known as zapateo.
The performer’s movements are piercing and full of conviction, best captured by the synchopated force of a dancer’s zapateo. It may come as no surprise that these balanced and polarizing characteristics have naturally transcended to the Catalunian cuisine indicative in charcuteria, pintxos/tapas, paella, and many more.
Catalan culture is proud, profoundly unique, and steeped in centuries of tradition, and it so happened that when visiting the ever-vibrant city of Barcelona late last year, the Scottish Independence referendum was happening at the same time as La Mercè, an annual religious festival celebrating the Catalan spirit. Coincidentally, the city was also heating up with its own Self-determination referendum which was just around the corner.
Zara and I explored old neighborhoods that I had visited in the past, and tried out new areas yet to be explored. We decided to stay in El Raval in Ciutat Vella, infamous for its nightlife and former crime. There was definitely a much more genuine local vibe, and never did we feel that our safety was compromised.
No first-time trip to Barcelona can ever be complete without heading over to the local markets, such as Santa Caterina or the overrun La Boqueria. Plan for an early morning visit to La Boqueria to avoid the hordes of tourists. You could literally spend hours trying out various snacks or sipping on a fine Tempranillo before heading over to the next stall.
There was no shortage of incredible meals during our visit, but there was one restaurant in particular that I wanted to experience again, where I took my first bite of a Catalan-style paella many years ago. L’Arròs arrosseria, situated along La Barceloneta boardwalk, and as its name suggests, specializes in paella and as such they have a diverse and extensive menu including the pasta-based variety known as fideuà.
Although originally from Valencia, paella has integrated its way into Catalunian cuisine where there are countless of variations in choice of seafood, produce and meats, as well as pasta. We arrived to L’Arròs early one evening to indulge in some of their amazing paella before walking down the long Barceloneta boardwalk. After dinner I asked the manager, Sergi, if I could come by and see the process when it wasn’t as busy. He asked me to come back the next day at a given time and so I did.
After a quick tour of the restaurant, I ended up in the kitchen where the cooks were going about their business. There, they kindly walked me through their preparation method, and I must have been in and out in less than fifteen minutes to not disturb their flow. Traditionally paella is cooked outdoors, and in this indoor setting it was a pleasure to see the masters do what they do best. Needless to say it was a well-oiled operation. There are three main pillars that in my opinion constitute the art of making a great paella, and in this case it is always a learning experience to see how others (especially professionals) approach the same dish.
Paella at L’Arròs Arrosseria
Once all the ingredients have been sliced up and set aside, mix in the Calasparra rice with the protein. In this case they were making a seafood paella. The sofrito is ladled into the pan, which is a blended mixture of roasted tomatoes and green peppers, sautéed onions, garlic, and a bit of sugar to cut down some of the acidity. In this case, they did not use the traditional parsley when blending the sofrito. Since this particular paella did not contain chorizo — given that they have many variations with a multitude of pairing options — if including chorizo, one would sautée the chorizo first in some olive oil for a few minutes before placing on the side.
At this point they mixed the rice, sofrito, and proteins with some vegetables such as spring beans and fresh peas, while toasting the rice for around five minutes. But artichokes, butter beans (if making a traditional Valenciana paella), amongst other select vegetables can also be added at this step.
If using chorizo, this is the time to add it back in while folding it into the rest of the ingredients.
Once the rice is toasted and the starches have started to release into the sauce, the stock (poultry of seafood) goes in before letting it simmer. This is around the time that two things happen: if using shellfish, at this point they would go right in. Also, I would add in slightly toasted saffron pistils, but to my surprise they did not use saffron at all with these paellas. After speaking with the chef, he mentioned that given the high cost of local saffron, they tried to stay away from incorporating it into these dishes. This seemed to make sense given margin, but the end result was still delicious.
Tip: From here on forward, the paella should not be stirred with a spoon as it all has to come together on its own.
Calasparra rice has a higher concentration of starch than any other rice, and it is important to add a good deal of liquid for best results. A good rule of thumb is four parts liquid to one part rice.
In order to maintain an even cook from top and bottom, and to quickly achieve the third pillar, socarrat, they then proceeded to stick the paella pans in the oven at high heat prior to garnishing and serving.
Once the paellas are done there are many types of garnishes that can be added ranging from a runnier garlic aioli (perfect with arròs negre), toasted breadcrumbs as in this instance, charred lemon wedges, fresh parsley, roasted bell pepper slices, and many more.
As they colloquially cheer in BCN, while holding a drink in hand, of course… Salut i força al canut!