Recipe: A taste of sunny Spain

One-pan wonder: The traditional - and still popular - paella

One-pan wonder: The traditional - and still popular - paella - Credit: Archant

Emma Crowhurst considers the enduring appeal of paella

For a lingering last look at our summer holidays I am cooking paella, the classic one-pan recipe! Although a well-known Spanish dish, paella can also be found served throughout the south of France where we have been holidaying for the last few years, usually also visiting my father, who lives near Toulouse.

Paella was originally a labourers’ meal, cooked over an open fire in the fields and eaten directly from the pan using wooden spoons. Variations are to be found everywhere – seafood is rare in the fields of Valencia, which is why they used chicken, rabbit, duck and snails.

Snails were the most commonly used meat as they were cheap; for special occasions rabbit or duck would be added and the well-off would have chicken.

One of the appeals of paella is that it can be cooked in large quantities and will still taste good later that day or even the next day (rapid chilling for leftovers and thorough reheating are essential if you plan to do this).

It is frequently seen as part of the menu du jour in restaurants, maybe as rice is inexpensive and it can be so varied with the addition of the other ingredients. When we visited Carcassonne this year it was everywhere, along with the ubiquitous and delicious cassoulet.

What should go in to the perfect paella will always be up for debate depending on who you talk to. Authentic recipes will always contain saffron. Cheaper versions use turmeric or safflower, which is a member of the daisy family. These try to replicate the flavour and gentle colour of saffron. Both will add colour but nothing can really substitute the delicate unique taste of real saffron.

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Toss the chicken pieces in the paprika. In a deep pan over a medium heat, fry the chicken in the olive oil. Remove the chicken, pop it on to a plate and add the chorizo. Cook until the chorizo has coloured nicely. Add the garlic, spring onions, paella rice and red pepper. Stir and heat for two to three minutes until the rice is opaque.

Add the stock and saffron and add the chicken back to the pan Stir gently, then simmer slowly for 10 minutes until the rice is half cooked. You don’t need to stir it.

Add the prawns and mussels to the pan. Settle them in to the paella. Heat for a further 10 minutes until the rice is fluffy, the chicken is cooked through and the mussels have opened. Season with a little salt and pepper and sprinkled with the chopped parsley.

An essential ingredient...

Autumn is the time to harvest saffron. The saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, has intense orange-coloured three-branched stigma nestled amongst purple petals.

Hand-picked and highly prized, to obtain 1lb (450g) of dry saffron requires the harvest of 50,000–75,000 flowers; a kilogram requires 110,000–170,000 flowers. Forty hours of labour are needed to pick 150,000 flowers. No wonder it’s expensive, costing around £1,100 per kilo in Iran and fetching double that figure in India. It is so highly prized that criminals have turned to smuggling it.

Saffron Walden was a major saffron-producing centre from the 14th century onwards. The golden spice was in high demand during outbreaks of the Black Death plague for its healing qualities and was probably quite widely grown at that time. Now Iran is the biggest grower but Spain, Italy, Greece, India, Morocco and even Britain grow different cultivars and at different spacing and planting depths to maximise the yield according to their conditions.