ON THE CANE & MUD TRAIL

Pulling into El Palmar, we were greeted by a sign blasting out the fact that we had arrived in the ‘Cradle of Valencian cuisine’. The humble beginnings of paella, the dish that conquered the world, are firmly rooted in this small, unassuming town of only nine hundred inhabitants. Driving through crowded streets festooned with fiesta bunting and fairy lights, it seemed hard to imagine the place as seething cauldron of resentment/fear and loathing. In January of this year a judge in Valencia finally ended 750 years of male domination of the Comunidad de Pescadores or Fishermen’s Guild. The ten year old dispute threatened to tear the community apart, with fathers and grandfathers locked in bitter disputes with daughters and granddaughters over their right to become full members of this most ancient of guilds.

For many years it was held in just as much reverence as the Church, taking on the functions of a Town Hall and doctor’s surgery. The first schools in the area were built on land ceded by the entity. In a recent interview, the president of the organization José Caballer refused to acknowledge any possible discrimination on the part of its members towards the women, claiming that throughout the guild’s history its membership requirements have remained unchanged and that they would have to adapt to the changing times. The case has attracted a lot of media attention in Spain with the actor, left wing activist and mother of Oscar winning Javier, Pilar Bardem and the Conservative mayor of Valencia, Rita Barberá, both rallying to the women’s cause.

Nothing quite prepares you for the fall off your horse experience of eating authentic paella for the first time, especially if you’d had a few disappointing previous encounters. The owner of L’Establiment, an El Palmar institution, explained, with a very straight face, that he was just an emissary, that the real miracles were worked in the kitchen by his mother-in-law and that I was a braver man than him if I dared to venture in there, telling me I would get the nod after we’d had our starters. The opening gambit was esgarraet con mojama, a fabulous salad consisting of finely flaked salt cod, strips of wood roasted red peppers and wafer thin slices of cured blue fin tuna, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The wine recommended was Aranleón Crianza 2005, from the up and coming D.O. Utiel-Requena, an excellent drop that married perfectly with the relatively strong flavours of the salt cod and cured tuna.

Next up was an Albufera signature dish, All i Pebre, chunks of young eel braised with potatoes in a rich, garlicky, pimentón laden sauce. Not having confronted eel at the table before, the dish was a very pleasant surprise indeed. Last, but not least of the entrantes or starters were sepietas, tiny boned cuttlefish, cooked in their own ink, and simply stunning. It was at this point that I got the nod from the owner, and after a swift introduction and a shout of ‘he’s all yours’ to his mother-in-law, he was gone. Swallowing hard, I decided to ask the all too predictable question about the decisive factor in the making of authentic paella, which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be first class ingredients and a wood fire to impart that sabor autentico or real flavour.

Back at the table, the humungous paella was greeted with much fanfare with our neighbours giving admiring nods and smiles. Interestingly, there’s a strict protocol to follow. If it’s paella for four, it’s invisibly divided into quarters and the occasional foray into somebody else’s territory is frowned upon. The rice is gently pushed from the rim of the paellera towards the centre, with a wooden spoon, preferably made from the wood of an orange tree. The paella we chose, on the trusty recommendation of the owner, featured wild duck from the Albufera, rabbit and snails and chicken. When we’d just about finished I noticed that our guide Fran began to scrape away at the dark residue at the bottom of the paellera. He confided to us that for some paella addicts, this was one of the best things about the dish and that it even had a special name, socarrat.

It seems that the socarrat has such a profound concentration of flavours and that ever so slightly burnt taste, that some paella pervs find it absolutely irresistible. Just as I was beginning to wonder about the number of paellas that have been sent back to the kitchen by grumpy tourists complaining about paying ‘good money’ for something burnt, our puddings arrived. Hitting the table in rapid succession were an extremely filling helado de queso, cheese ice-cream with pine nuts, walnuts, dried apricots, sultanas and honey, an equally filling helado de turrón, or nougat ice-cream and mousse de leche merengada, which rather woefully translates as meringued milk mousse, but was truly unbeatable. Reservations are absolutely essential as the place draws devotees from all over Spain, including celebrities.

The Albufera and rice paddies are only eight kilometres south west of the city and can easily be reached by car, taxi or even bicycle. There are a number of walking routes known unofficially as las rutas de caña y barro or cane and mud trails/routes, which take you through areas that afford the ernest twitcher with endless opportunities, not to mention the dune system and beaches currently undergoing regeneration in a belated attempt to return the area to its former pristine beauty. One of the best ways of seeing the lagoon is by taking a trip in an albuferenc, the traditional Albufera craft, from any of the jetties in El Saler, El Pujol, El Palmar, Catarroja and Silla. Do remember to establish the price and duration of the trip with the handy patron or boatman before boarding.

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