Valencia prizes its paella

La Pepica, which opened in Valencia, Spain, in 1898, offers nearly two dozen variations on paella and other rice dishes. La Pepica, which opened in Valencia, Spain, in 1898, offers nearly two dozen variations on paella and other rice dishes. (David Lyon for The Boston Globe)
By David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2009

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VALENCIA, Spain - There’s hardly a tourist restaurant in Spain that doesn’t offer paella, but the dish really comes into its own in Valencia. The city has been Spain’s rice-growing center since the eighth century and Valencianos have built a complex cuisine around the grain.

To the surprise of most visitors, classic paella Valenciana is nothing like the ubiquitous plates of orange rice festooned with shrimp and mussels. Valencianos call that dish “arroces con mariscos,’’ which translates as rice with shellfish. The authentic local paella comes from the garden, not the sea, even though this is a seaport city. Filled with fava beans, green beans, land snails, and pieces of chicken and rabbit, this paella is cooked in a shallow pan over a hot fire.

The traditional dish is usually made in a large pan for a crowd - ideally balanced over a wood fire to impart smoky aromas. Paella can be made successfully in a kitchen, started on the stovetop and finished in the oven. The short grains of Valencia rice absorb copious quantities of chicken stock but remain al dente.

As many cooks will tell you, the best way to learn local cuisine is to talk to market vendors. Valencia’s Mercado Central is a treat for anyone who enjoys food. Set in a vast Modernista building, it is one of the largest fresh markets in Spain. Beautiful spring vegetables on display are grown on small farms near Valencia, which has a subtropical climate permitting year-round cultivation of greens and legumes. Alas, you can’t take vegetables on the airlines, but you can equip yourself with the other paella-making tools.

“Paella is really very easy,’’ the proprietor of Ceramicas Terriols tells me as I peruse her huge array of paella pans. When I settle on a top-of-the-line, 11-inch, stainless steel pan with a copper-core base (cost is about $25), she also produces a recipe for paella Valenciana translated into tortured English. (Sample: “When the meat is gilding, the tomato and paprika are thrown well moved till the whole is lightly fried.’’)

The ingredient list is easier to decipher. I find huge mounds of sweet, hot, and smoked paprika at A. Catalan (who also have the best prices on saffron), and finally track down heirloom bomba rice (cultivated in the Albufera wetlands south of the city) at La Pista Pastor.

With pan and staples in hand, all I have to do is on-the-ground tasting and sampling. Now to find superb paella.

A beachfront fixture since 1898, La Pepica is easily the most famous rice restaurant in Valencia. Even Hemingway wrote glowingly about the food. Don Ernesto’s imprimatur almost always guarantees an establishment with a lot of atmosphere. The main entry to the dining room is from the beach. I enter from the street and walk past a vast kitchen. One glimpse of dozens of cooks in gleaming kitchen whites, preparing beautiful ingredients and juggling huge paella pans, convinces me that I have indeed come to the right place.

La Pepica offers nearly two dozen variations of paella and other rice dishes (some soupy, some dry). Though the vast dining room seats more than 400, every table gets impeccable service that includes a formal presentation of the paella straight from the kitchen, still in its cooking pan. Then the waiter, in bow tie and vest, plates it at another station.

Mine is a perfect paella Valenciana. The rice is al dente with a thin crust on the bottom, and the rising steam from the plate is redolent of saffron and paprika. The favas, flat green beans, and snails are earthy, pieces of chicken and rabbit are sweet and falling off the bone. For a dry paella - as opposed to a wet rice “caldo’’ - it stands as my benchmark for all other paellas.

I head home with my idea of a fine dish, iffy cooking instructions, the new pan, saffron, rice, and paprika. All I need is a striped vest.

Mercado Central de Valencia, Plaza Mercado, Valencia, Spain; 011-34-96-382-91-01.

La Pepica, Paseo Neptuno 6-8, Playa de Levante, Valencia; 011-34-96-371-03-66,