Impromptu lesson in cooking paella for 50

Andalucians love to eat, drink and party, and no time is this more apparent than during social gatherings. Be it a religious celebration, a family affair, or simply a friendly get-together, any Spanish gathering is synonymous with lots and LOTS of food!

My husband has been taking a woodcarving class this spring and the end-of-term was celebrated with a humongous paella dinner for 50 outside the school. We had been told a noon start, so we showed up a few minutes late, to give them the Spanish benefit. As a dozen of the most loyal students were setting up saw horses for an impromptu 40’ table, I found this a perfect time for me to observe the making of the famous Spanish paella.

Often considered the national dish of Spain, a paella is a rice dish that originated in Valencia. A paella can contain meats, seafood or vegetables, or often all three depending on who is making it, what is available and how authentic the chef wants to be. All Spaniards have their own recipe and their very own way of making it – and if they don’t, their mother, brother, or father-in-law does.

Back under the shaded overhang of the school, Alfredo, the ‘chef’ and Mercedes, the equally capable ‘sous chef’, as well a handful other advice-givers, have chopped large bowls of onion and peppers, whilst continuing a friendly bickering about the art of paella making. As the mile-long table is magically filled with delicious, heart-clogging tapas dishes, a giant 3-circle gas-cooker is propped up on bricks and wooden wedges to make level ground for a bathtub-sized wok. In this, a generous 3 liters of olive oil and 50 cloves of garlic are left to simmer, while all move on to peel fruit for a 10-gallon tub of sangria.

After thirsts have been quenched and garlics have softened, a large bowl of onions (I’d guess a dozen), as well as equal amounts of red and green peppers are added. With many pointers from the pigeon gallery and ample willing hands, the wok is exchanged to a bigger-still paellera, the traditional flat paella dish, this one easily measuring 4 feet across! By this point, we have been there a couple of hours, but who is counting. It is sound advice never to go to a Spanish meal on an empty stomach. You will eat like there is no tomorrow, but the food will not be close to being done when you get there. Communal preparations, with or without ‘over my dead body’ looks from the competing chefs, are part of the process!

Once the vegetables have acquired the desired softness and approval of both cooks, meats are to be added. Mercedes, who owns a carneceria in town insists that all meats should be washed, even if there is only a public lavatory from which to get water. Next, the rinsed pork (ca. 3 kg) gets spread into paellera, followed by a few kilos of chicken. Alfredo opens a package of table salt and throws generous handfuls. While the chef looks the other way, Mecedes brings out a container with her secret paella spice (ground pepper, thyme and clove, apparently) and spreads it over the meat. Then, for good measure, she too adds a few handfuls of salt…

An hour later (judging by my growing stomach), Alfredo spears a piece of meat with his wood carving knife  -worn by all self respecting rural Andalucian men- and gives it a try. It is not yet ready, so time for another beer for the cook. Then, packages of pre-sliced squid are added, followed by a wad of mussels. The pigeon gallery has lost interest, so I am the only one left in the fan club. The chefs are measuring rice (white and rounded) to determine the amount of water. 3 huge bowls of uncooked rice is poured into the mixture (traditionally in a sign of the cross) followed by 6 big bowls of water. The paella is almost toppling over the edge, but still there is saffron to be added, and, less traditional, but no less effective, orange food colouring…

Just a few finishing touches now: Mercedes peels a tomato and uses the peel to lovingly make a rose for the centre. Alfredo cuts strips of picked, roasted red peppers which he distributes throughout the top and finally lemon wedges are propped along the edge of the masterpiece. It is three and a half hour since we arrived to enjoy this meal and lord and behold, the paella is about to be served.  And let me tell you, it was worth the wait!

A couple of hours later, with full bellies and sangria tinted teeth, we are the very first to bid our thankful farewells and meander our way home, while the Spaniards party on into the night.

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