Restaurante Elías: The 100-point Paella
Air-dried red tuna roe is perfect with roasted almonds and a dry Sherry. But since we didn’t have a Sherry at hand, we experimented with the white 1948 Marqués de Murrieta Reserva, popularly known as "white label," produced every year, unlike the rare white Castillo Ygay, which is only bottled once or twice per decade. These old wood-aged white Riojas have an oxidative profile from being aged for many years in barrel and always have a toffee twist and certain Sherry-like aromas. But what is truly surprising about them is the acidity, how lively the palate is and how the oxidation seems to disappear as the wine breathes once the bottle is opened. They never cease to amaze me, and considering this 1948 is on the edge of turning 70 years old, I’d say it feels a lot younger.
Snails are not to be taken lightly. The ones used for this dish are the Serrana type, found on the dry-farmed lands, in the wild of the mountains, where they feed on thyme and rosemary; they act as both an ingredient as well as seasoning. Snails like that are not always available fresh, but as they were in season when I visited, we decided to order some on the side as a snack. They are also cooked with the heat of embers from vine cuttings used to cook paella.
We experimented with an unusual white from Burgundy as it comes from the Côte de Nuits—where most of the wines are red—the 2008 Domaine de l’Arlot, Nuits Saint Georges Blanc La Gerbotte, from a cool vintage that showed good freshness. We brought some bottles but the list has a good selection and contains most of the wines from the region, so we also ordered some, such as the ancestral sparkling 2015 Tipzzy by Rafa Bernabé. (Sparklers are also a good pairing with rice dishes.)
The main secret for a good paella is, as with every dish, to use good ingredients. The quality of the stock, the olive oil, the tomatoes, the bomba rice (the variety from Calasparra), the serrana snails and, in this case, the rabbit. Rabbit meat can be tough, but not here, where it's very tender and tasty, and it melts in your mouth. They also use the liver and kidneys, which also provide an earthier, iron-like twist to the rice.
The Monastrell chapter was truly superb and lasted throughout the two large dishes of rice. I had the chance to preview the latest releases from Casa Castillo and Enrique Mendoza, which have produced some of their best wines ever in 2015. Casa Castillo’s 2015 Pie Franco is the finest wine José María Vicente has produced, combining the power and rusticity of that old ungrafted Monastrell with elegance and subtleness. The two bottlings from Enrique Mendoza, those from the Alicante appellation, 2015 Las Quebradas and 2015 Estrecho were not bad either, both at a very high and similar quality level, but with different styles reflecting the different soils where the vines grow.
The way to achieve a one-grain thick (or thin!) paella without the rice being hard or overcooked is to use a lot of stock and a lively fire so the stock is boiling and the rice is in constant suspension in the liquid while it cooks. That way it doesn’t stick to the pan before it’s ready. (But later you actually do want the rice to be stuck to the pan.)
To get the required heat they use vine cuttings, which burn quite quickly. In some places they use orange tree cuttings, but they are not available in this zone. Both types of wood are also believed to provide some aromatics to the dish that go up in the form of smoke and later precipitate over the rice. Once it is cooked, the rice is left to settle and, as the liquid is consumed, it sticks to the pan which gives it that slightly burnt crunchiness created by one of those Maillard reactions (that I’m convinced created the term umami), locally know as socarrat. Then you need to let it rest for a few minutes before you serve it.
There was one more horsepower on the wine front, a 2007 Saint-Joseph Rouge by Pierre Gonon, for me the finest grower in the appellation, that showed a very good evolution. We also ordered one of the classical labels from the region, the polished Monastrell 2010 Raspay from Primitivo Quiles, also in the Alicante appellation—and I’m glad we did, because it was one of the best vintages of that wine I’ve ever had.
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