When I bought the masia 12 years ago, I was invited to a Sunday lunch “à la espagnol”. Sunday lunch might be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in the UK but it is decidedly paella in the Communidad of Valencia. Furthermore, as BBQ is to men in English speaking countries, so is Paella to men in Spain.
Or so I thought.
My first Sunday paella, a week after arriving in El Maestrat, was memorable. Especially as grandfather had a terrible sniffly cold and stuck his fork repeatedly into the central salad. Us northeners are not used to such indiscriminate saliva exchange. I watched the family quaffing down the rosé I would have liked whilst insisting I partake of their best tinto – a syrupy sherry affair peppered with sediment. It had turned the wrong corner about a century ago and rotted my stomach instantly. That aside, the meal, the family and the old farmhouse corresponded to my romantic dreams and I was moved by the inclusion in this intimate affair.
I have been to many paella “events” since and now embrace the communal salad thing. There is something about sharing from the same plate that instantly breaks down barriers, whether at a hunters’ reunion seating 200 to a trendy party with a chef cooking for you. Laugh you may, but I think sharing bacteria may be the best thing possible for boosting the immume system. The Spanish live long and in my village most last well into their nineties.
Recently I was invited to another family paella. The invitation was accidental. I was sitting in Atzeneta’s pizza restaurant, the first one in El Maestrat by the way. The Italian owner Alberto and his partner Nuria came over, then a few locals, and of course that is how it goes. Family paellas are the best in IMHO and this time I was a pro.
For some reason photos were requested, and I was conscripted. Ok.
So on the next Sunday I waited outside the pizza place as arranged, a bit nervous because I was 20 minutes late. As it happened Alberto and Nuria swanned up 25 minutes later than my 20 so no need to worry. We drove to the masia, our buoyant Italian reluctantly buckling his seat belt. “What can happen on this road”, he exclaimed, taking both hands off the wheel and waving them around in illustration. Hmm, I said to him nervously. A flat tire, a heart attack, an encounter with a careless drunk driver.
Happily he took note and we arrived seamlessly at the finca.
It was a typical renovated masia for these parts. All mod cons, not much sign of it’s past, lots of concrete and a huge cavernous garage that probably sees more use than the rest of the house put together. The extended family, some 18 cousins, was sitting around a corner fireplace in front of a long table laid with picnic plates staring at us. As were the stuffed head of an ibex in one corner and that of a wild boar in another.
It’s the foreigners who are always late.
It was as if we had pushed a button for as soon as we entered the feast swung into action. They rushed to the table and plonked themselves down. We sat down sheepishly. A paella does not wait, maybe a lot longer than those soufflés we used to serve up at dinner parties in the 70’s, but still it has its optimum time. Besides the World Cup was on at 4!
The starter was, wait for it, pickled thrush, complete with head and crunchy eyes. I crunched. As I said, I was a pro now. Then came ham, cheese and fuck, sorry fock, but pronounced as previous and actually a stuffed flat bread, and salads and very expensive cava (Magnanimus), and of course red wine and the rest. The man of the house, Placido, about 70, was a thin as a toothpick. He piled his plate with the birds and helped himself two more times. His heavier cousins concentrated more on the carbos and wine.
The crowning moment of a Spanish Sunday lunch arrived. A paella is not just put on the table. It is unveiled and admired before its perfection is dismembered. This one was protected by a large swathe of waxed paper and I was invited to photograph it. I was surprised. Not by the paella, but by the straight-talking women beaming with pride around it. I thought it was a man thing I questioned, and the reply of course was what do men know?
We are in Valencia, in case you forgot, and a Valencian paella has no seafood. It is chicken, rabbit, and runner beans basically. Right? Wrong! This one had no rabbit, but plenty of prawns. Try telling these Valencian women that this should be different.
We tucked in and ate and drank and ate and laughed. 20 family members with me and an Italian pizza restaurant owner with his partner. The skinny ones continued having seconds of everything, including the pudding and bowls of fruit afterwards, not to mention the chupitos. At one point the heat overwhelmed Alberto and he retired to a sofa. Or was it the chupitos that did him in? Probably both. Indeed the olive Mediterranean faces gradually gained a subtle orangey glow while mine turned lobster red. Sweat poured unbecomingly down my front.
At some point a trio of older men sourced a box of cuban cigars, two very out of tune guitars and some bassinets and sang for us. Truthfully it was really charming. The garage echoed. The moment was short-lived though as the World Cup game was starting. They abruptly discarded their dusty instruments and scuttled away into the modernised masia, leaving us ladies to tidy up.
Some things never change. And Spain lost.