I have written about it before, but write again I must because paella is to Valencia as the Sunday roast was traditionally to all of England. The longer I am here, the more it is becoming the staple of my weekly cuisine, and although I am distinctly not a carbo craving woman, I have become as enamored of paella as any local Spaniard.
A year ago I drove into Castellon on the old entry road, down past crumbling old casas and vacant lots of those long before demolished to make way for new apartment buildings. The lots sprouted weeds and tall grasses, the only upward growth now evident since the recession. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of some old Spanish gem with a traditional verandah through bougainvillea-laden wrought iron railings, hope that the rest might one day be restored and cherished again.
It was here that I discovered another gem, Restaurant Portoles, in a converted hacienda, its walls painted vibrant colours and bedecked with equally striking works of art.
Its owner, Rafa, was hard to miss and his personality equaled his size.In the kitchen his charming wife Elena prepared the food and all this was set off by a ghostly sommelier dressed in black that put one in mind of an undertaker.
I dined well on numerous small seafood courses, followed by a chupito and the best coffee I have had in many years.
I was the only person in the place. Rafa explained that his clientele had chiefly come from the tile factories in the proximity, now all sadly closed. Traffic into town habitually diverted along the new road these days and therefore reduced his passing trade. Proof is it took me a year to return again.
When I did I wondered what took me so long. A newly created terrace resplendent with purple bougainvillea was a welcoming as Rafa and Elena. The silent camarero come undertaker was still delightfully in residence, passing almost invisibly in the background. I was shown around front and back, and thus discovered that Rafa had painted many of the artworks himself, including some very colourful paella pans!
Then I ate of seafood like a queen. “Anytime you want me to cook you a paella”, Rafa offered, “just let me know and Elena and I will come up to your masia. All you need to do is provide a gas bottle and drinks – we will bring the rest.”
A person does not need another invitation. I jumped at the chance and we fixed a date. Which is how last Sunday I was given a lesson in how to cook an authentic Valencian paella of perfectly cooked al dente “bomba rice”, meat and vegetables. “Next time I will make you a seafood one”, Rafa generously added. Gosh, how lucky is that?
I had invited a medley of both Spanish and English people around for the experience and amazing it was. Less amazing was my masia’s suitability at accommodating a sit down feast for 12, but never mind. We somehow managed, with about 15 bottles of cava and wines, and an untraditional sprinkling of rain.
As soon as the meal was over, my cheerful cooks packed up and drove off back to Castellon. It was very surreal. Slowly people filtered off into the night, leaving the diehards behind, knocking back chupitos and strumming on my son’s guitar. Needless to say I was one of those diehards and my hangover lasted some two days. Next follows the lesson of real authentic paella – ti want it to be accurate and it is a bit difficult catching hold of Rafa who is presently sunbathing in Benicassim!
You can get find out more about Restaurante Portoles here