One of Spain’s best-known, beloved, and frequently abused, dishes has been given protected cultural status on the grounds that a proper paella celebrates the “art of unity and sharing”.
On Wednesday, the government of Valencia – the region where paella originated – declared the dish an item of cultural significance, extolling its history and virtues in an eight-page announcement in the official gazette.
“Paella is an icon of the Mediterranean diet, because of both its ingredients and its characteristics as a representation of Valencian culture,” read the declaration.
“All the ingredients used in its preparation – such as fish, meat, vegetables, the justly famous and healthy olive oil and the complete grain that is rice – are part of the Mediterranean diet.”
The fragrant mingling of protein, vegetables and carbohydrates, it added, “make paella one of gastronomy’s most balanced dishes”.
The regional government said the new status would help promote study and research into the dish and would safeguard “the survival of this cultural item and ensure it is passed on to future generations”.
Despite is hallowed status in Valencian cuisine, paella has frequently fallen victim to controversial twists – and even mechanisation. Five years ago, Jamie Oliver terrified many on the peninsula by suggesting that chorizo deserved a place in the dish, while earlier this year, a Spanish industrial engineer unveiled a robotic paella maker.
The declaration, notedthat paella needed to be protected from the “distortions that could result from mass tourism”, also included a series of helpful do’s and don’ts.
Heat sources are important: although orange tree wood abounds in Valencia “and gives the dish a special character and aroma”, the main thing is to ensure your fire’s not too smoky, or, if cooking on an indoor stove, to check the hob distributes the heat evenly, it said.
Perhaps the most important rule of all is to never stir the rice while it is cooking. Any spatula incursions will release too much starch from the rice and leave you with a sticky paella.
The government pointed out that the dish is “the symbol of a Sunday family lunch … and represents a feeling of identity and continuity that we need to protect, maintain, and pass on”.
It did, however, admit that times had changed when it came to cutlery: “Tradition dictates that a paella should be eaten with a spoon (in the past they were wooden and individual), although it’s true today that that custom has fallen away and each diner may choose for themselves.”
It also recalled how the dish was developed over the course of several centuries after the Arabs brought rice to Spain and the saffron trade began to flourish.
“The first reference to paella – or ‘Valencian rice’ – is to be found in an 18th-century recipe manuscript, which explains how it should be prepared and notes that the rice should end up dry.”