What's the dish you think of when you hear the phrase "Spanish food"? Paella, right?
And it truly is the national dish as we learned our first Sunday here when we went to a village fiesta in the nearby town of Comares celebrating their patron saint's day. There were to be bands and singing and a procession through the streets but most of all there would be the making and serving of a gigantic paella distributed to one and all - and for free!
Our timing was perfect as we arrived in the main plaza just as the paella making was beginning. A huge log fire had been lit surrounded by a rim of sand - to protect the cooks' legs from singeing. A great deal of time was taken to make sure that the pan was lying flat on its frame . Spirit levels were produced and measurements made and the pan was adjusted several times until it seemed that the relationship of flame to food would be in equal proportion on all sides.
The cooking team in charge was a group of half a dozen men led by a chef (in whites) who told us that they'd been doing this for fourteen years now and when not making enormous paellas were all professors.
Here's a partial grocery list the chef showed us of the ingredients they'd brought with them to make the paella. I think 1 kilo each of Avrocrem Pescado & Pollo is probably powdered fish and chicken bouillon cubes which seem to have become a ubiquitous global addition to just about everything.
Phase One - sauté 40 kilos of chicken and 40 kilos of pork in olive oil.
Phase Two - add finely chopped garlic; chopped green pepper and fresh bay leaves. Then 10 liters of white wine in boxes to tenderize the meat.
Phase Three - add the seafood - 20 kilos of large shrimp and 20 kilos shelled mussels. Followed by cans of tomato sauce, red peppers and peas. Then saffron - which I'm pretty sure was not saffron but something to turn the whole thing an appropriate yellow - maybe turmeric. Plus salt, pepper and ground nutmeg. All during the process the guys turning the whole thing over with their gigantic paddles would taste the liquid and consult one another as to whether it needed more of this or that. It was a serious gastronomical operation.
At this point Comares patron saint, St. Illario or Hilary of Poitiers, arrived being shouldered by six strong men on a plinth. St. Hilary lived in the mid 4th century and has been named a Doctor of the Church for his strong stand against the Arian schism of early Christianity. Since living in Istanbul which was the center of this bitter, deadly disagreement, I have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what the hell this doctrinal dispute was about over which many people murdered each other but it still eludes me. All to say, that St. Illario seems a strange choice for a very small village in the middle of Andalucía to have adopted as their mascot. Maybe it's because he's also supposed to provide protection from snake bites.
A great deal of music and dancing with guitars and lutes and girls with castanets and ribbons in their hair accompanied the parade. But I knew if I got a closer look at that I would lose my front row seat at the paella pan so I suppose I'll have to catch up with that part of the festivities at another village's bash.
Now 250 litres of water were added to the pan, brought to a boil and then in went the rice to great applause. This seemed to be a signal that drinks and hors d'oeuvres were to be handed out and it rapidly became total pandemonium. Beer, wine and soft drinks were passed over our heads to the crowd as were bowls of cracked green garlic flavored olives. Then pre-sliced chorizo and morcilla sausage plates arrived as well as slices of manchego cheese and were scarfed up by people who acted as though they hadn't eaten in days. Meanwhile the trusty paella team soldiered on using their paddles to lift and stir the rice.
Finally, after more than two very hot hours work, all 1,600 plates were ready to be served with a wedge of lemon and a slice of bread. Here's our portions.
And here's a short film by Bruce documenting the whole process.