Roger Felip Ibars is owner of Mas Trucafort, a restaurant in the wine-producing region of Montsant, a few hours south-west of Barcelona. His is a restaurant known for regionally inspired recipes. He researches local dishes and brings them to the table in a way that is most agreeable with the wines of Montsant and nearby Priorat. Although he doesn’t make paella in his restaurant, he makes this particular paella for family and friends.
To watch him make and tend the fire is to watch a craftsman at work. Although he casually chats as he pokes more dried grape vines into the fire, he is actually concentrating on the flames and coals. He is not mesmerised like one would watch a log fire in winter, but engaged like an engineer standing over his lathe. Here Roger describes how he makes a paella over a fire. He uses some Catalan words, but I’m sure you can work out his meaning.
‘People think about paella and they think about seafood. They think paella is a coastal food. What a lot of people don’t understand is that paella is made everywhere rice is grown. In the country, people will use the animals they hunt, like rabbit, hare, wild boar. From the land we sometimes use lamb, and vegetables. We also use dried cod — traditionally we didn’t have contact with the coast so we went to the market and bought salt cod once a year. It is typical in Catalonia for people in villages to have some land. On a Sunday they go to their land with their family and friends and make a fire and cook in this way.
‘I start the fire with chopped almond wood. This is a hard wood and has much energy. I add larger and larger pieces to build a bigger fire. I then let it burn down for an hour to make the coals. I put on the paellera [paella pan] and pour in some oil, and add two whole heads of garlic and a bunch of thyme. It is important to cook the thyme into the oil as it is the oil that communicates the flavour of the ingredients into the rice.
‘Then I add a handful of dried grape vines to the fire. They burn quickly and this is like a shock of heat. This we call flamejar. The vines give me instant control; I can increase the heat immediately. Then I marcar or brown two rabbits that have been cut up. I then put some salt on the rabbit.
‘For me it is very important, as the paellera is very thin, that the flames envoltar or envelop the paella. I cook the rabbit, then put the rabbit in a pot over coals with some water and fresh parsley to make a stock.
‘The fire under the paellera has now died a little and I begin to make the sofregit or sofrito with one red and one green capsicum (pepper), a small bunch of thyme and three finely chopped onions. I throw another handful of sticks onto the fire and brown the onions. You can smell the almonds in the smoke. I also add some pine cones to the fire — it adds a Mediterranean aroma to the sofregit.
‘Now I let the flames die away and make a reduction of the onions and capsicums. I add a little of the stock every now and then. When the onions are golden I add four chopped and peeled tomatoes. Over the next 20 minutes I add some more vines every few minutes to increase the flames.
‘When the sofregit has cooked down I add peeled and boiled artichokes and cook for another 10 minutes. I then add the cooked rabbit back into the pan, increase the flame, then sprinkle in the rice. The rice I use is the bomba variety from the Ebro Delta. Bomba rice just takes 17–18 minutes to cook in total. I cook the rice for a few minutes over a high flame, then I pour in the stock; the stock has to be double the amount of the rice.
‘I put more vines on the fire and season the rice with salt — rice needs a lot of salt. I add some parsley and fresh thyme and let it cook, bubbling… if it cooks too fast I add some more water, perhaps the juice from the artichokes. It should bubble for 10 minutes on a high flame. I always taste the stock as it cooks. The stock needs to taste saltier than you expect the paella to taste.
‘In the last 5 minutes I add the desalted bacalao (cod). I then let the fire die down and let the paella covar — this means to rest covered; sometimes you put newspaper on top to keep the humidity. On the edges and on the bottom there is a little sucarrat — this is the crust on the bottom of the paella. This is a much-desired feature of the paella. Now everyone must take a spoon and take what they want. Bon profit!’