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Valencia’s Paella: May Just be the Most Spanish Dish in Existence

valencian paellaI cringe when I hear people pronounce the word paella with an ‘l’ sound, like this, and not with the ‘y’ sound that it carries in Spanish, like this. But it’s just not always appropriate to jump in with pedantic corrections, especially when the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers both as valid alternatives and does nothing to help my case. Then again, trying to be a purist when it comes to paella is close to impossible.

Here in my new home town of Valencia, you can’t get away with the first pronunciation (at least not around me), but you won’t find much consensus about paella in general. Too many experts and too many ‘authentic’ recipes make for some interesting debate and some truly excellent food. No matter how you say it.

From what I can tell, there are only two things that everyone can agree on when it comes to paella:

  1. Paella is cooked in a large, round, shallow pan called a paellera in Spanish and simply paella in Valencian. Here’s a picture.
  2. Essential ingredients include rice, some form of protein (seafood, chicken, rabbit, snails…), some kind of legumes and/or vegetables, olive oil (is there anything that isn’t made with olive oil in Spain?) and saffron.

The rest is up for debate, though there are several widely recognized variations of the dish that tend to adhere to some fairly consistent guidelines described in the following recipes: Paella Valenciana, Paella Marinera, Paella de Verduras, Arroz a Banda, Arroz Negro, Arroz al Horno and the pasta version, Fideua, with its own numerous variations.

I can still recall a time, not so long ago, when I knew nothing about paella, was unaware that rice was even cultivated in Spain, and was oblivious to the uses of the amazingly expensive saffron that I saw in specialty shops in Canada. (In fact, the only thing that I knew about saffron was from the Donovan song, Mellow Yellow – which still often comes to mind and still makes no sense to me…)

But paella has come to represent a large part of what I love about Spain and why I have chosen to make my home here. It is a dish that embodies the strange contrast of old and new that forms the powerful identity of this country. Its ingredients have been wholly incorporated into the Spanish cuisine and culture, and yet almost none of them are native to the Iberian Peninsula: rice and saffron were introduced by the Moors between the 8th and 11th centuries; the olive tree and its oil were brought by the Phoenicians roughly two millennia earlier; the indispensible pan that the dish is cooked in comes from the Latin word patella, brought by the Romans; even the Spanish wine (whichever of many you choose) that should always accompany your favourite paella has its origins elsewhere.

The scale of this history astounds me. And yet as I wander through the streets of Valencia or visit the towns and cities of other parts of Spain, it’s clear that this tradition of embracing the new and making it into something different, something distinctly Spanish, is a thriving counterpart to the age-old traditions that make Spain such a vibrant and beautiful place.


Ivan Larcombe

Ivan loves wine and food almost as much as he loves writing about them. Next on the list is hearing from interested readers: he welcomes comments and visitors to his blog, Ivan In Valencia.

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