Year of Grace, Day 235. Ana of L’Abadia’s paella campestre

I’ve written before about Ana’s distinctive cooking in her restaurant, L’Abadia, in the centre of Gandia. Last week we had a chance to dine there again, and once again we were captivated by her inventive way of flavouring.

We began with mussels steamed in a light broth that she’d made just a tad sour, though not as sour as Asian sour soups like Philippine sinigang or Thai tom yam. The broth was so delicious and plentiful enough that we asked for spoons to eat it as soup. Ana had used lemon quarters, several fat cloves of garlic, and fresh bay leaves casually torn into pieces for seasoning.

I love the complexity of flavours that fresh bay leaves give to a dish, and for that reason I make sure to plant bay wherever I am. Even in England, I’d managed to grow a tree from a mere sapling (and it did surprisingly well despite the cold and wet because I’d planted it in front of a brick wall that faced south, thus ensuring it would have radiated warmth at night when the sun shone on it by day, and incorporated lots of pea gravel into the soil for good drainage). Most of my friends are surprised when I say I use bay leaves fresh, instead of dried, which is of course the more usual way of using them, and they are very nice that way too. I was rather pleased to see that Ana uses them fresh as well.

The pièce de résistance was Ana’s paella, featuring seasonal spring vegetables – sweet fava beans and tiny baby artichokes – with chicken and rabbit. Our experience of paella has been rather of the seafood variety, and we have always enjoyed it, except when the rice came exceedingly al dente. Which is to say, quite hard in the middle. Ok, a born rice eater, I won’t mince words – it was what I would call quite raw. I don’t know why very al dente should be a preference for paella – I can understand why pasta should be prepared thus, and prefer mine that way too. But rice?

In one quite famous restaurant in Barcelona, where people without reservations (including us) had waited over an hour to be seated at lunchtime (and I assumed this signaled that the food would be outstanding), I was disappointed at the quality of their paella real.  I didn’t find anything real (royal) at all about rice that comes quite raw, but this is just my humble and very plebeian observation. (Actually, it was dubbed “royal” because all the seafood had been peeled or shelled beforehand.)

Ana’s paella thankfully didn’t come al dente – the rice came perfectly cooked through, having thoroughly absorbed all the robust richness of chicken and rabbit broth. The tender artichokes and very young sweet fava beans added a satisfying earthiness and depth that offset the flavourful meat. Sweet pepper and aubergine slices added brightness in colour, and taste as well. Ana had a light hand with spices, so that each ingredient tasted of its own natural goodness. The acidity of lemon juice sprinkled over was a nice touch.

Ana came out from the kitchen to ask how we liked it. We were profuse in expressing our enjoyment. She smiled broadly, “It’s different from the usual seafood paella that most people know,” she said. “It’s called paella campestre – typical of this region. You know, you go out into the field or the garden, and see what’s coming up, what looks good. You see some fava beans that look ready to eat while they’re still young and sweet, you can even eat them raw, and then you go check the artichokes and pick the tiniest ones, before their chokes have toughened. And you’ve got yourself the makings of a nice lunch.” And indeed it truly was.

Ana’s paella campestre called to mind a similar Japanese way of showcasing the earliest vegetables of the season by adding them to be steamed together with plain, white rice: wild greens like butterbur or tsukushi (horsetails) in early spring; chestnuts or wild fungi like matsutake (pine mushrooms) in the autumn.

I’m truly glad that we’d followed our instincts when we spied L’Abadia’s blackboard set on the lovely pedestrian shopping street of Carrer Major, that very first time we went to Gandia. Otherwise we would not have chanced upon it, as its quite private location on a cul-de-sac on Carrer Abadia is a bit removed from the other restaurants on Plaça Major, the square with the statue of Sant Francesc de Borja.