By Suzy Beal
This is the eighth episode of a memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.
On the chosen day, we gathered at the quay where two boats lay ready to take us to the island. We didn’t have a choice whether to go or stay. The decision being made for us by Mom and Dad who thought it would be another cultural experience for us.
I wanted to stay on the quay with the friends I was making. Every time I settled in or made new friends, Dad threw in a new experience he felt we should have. We got into the boats and headed out to sea. I spent the entire time holding on to the gunwale of the boat trying to concentrate on blue water and not on the rolling; my stomach lurched with each wave.
One man on the boat explained and Tommy helped translate that the name paella comes from two words in Spanish, “Para Ella”, meaning “for her”. This dish began as a meal cooked out of doors at the water’s edge. When the fishermen brought in their fresh catches from the sea, they cooked this dish “For her” which meant the women had the afternoon off and they visited and gossiped together.
Cooking paella on the beach is a happening, a social event, a meal, but most of all, a cultural and culinary adventure.
Our hosts had spent several days gathering the freshest ingredients. They bought the seafood off the fishermen at the dock. They found the plumpest chicken and the perfect sausages. Fresh red peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and meats lined a board brought for that purpose.
Dad, Mom and us kids watched the men scooped a depression in the sand for the olive wood, because it burns hot and long. When the fire was hot enough, they placed a soup kettle filled with water on one side of the fire.
The men cut the fish, sausage, and pork up into pieces. They scrubbed the mussels and clams in a bucket of water from the sea. The head chef crashed through the chicken with a meat cleaver, bones and all. They washed the shrimp, but did not take off the outer skins. They peeled lots of onions and cut them into small pieces and set them aside to await the right moment. The chef grabbed a large knife and cut up garlic and parsley together. His knife flashed as he diced up this combination. He told me the name of each ingredient as he dumped it into the pot. I didn’t recognize some of them even in English. This was the first time I’d ever seen raw squid or sobrasada sausage (blood sausage.)
The cooks drank wine along with my Dad. They’d brought tapas (traditional Spanish finger food) to enjoy with the wine. The caracoles (snails), cooked in olive oil with parsley and garlic, gave us kids pause. I didn’t want to try those, and I saw that my siblings were shaking their heads, except Tommy who tried everything including the wine. Albondigas (meatballs) with garlic dip, and tortilla patata (potato omelet) cut in small triangles adorned a plank brought from home for this purpose. We kids tried a few of the tapas. We recognize the tortilla patata because Carmen made it for us at home.
Once the paella pan was on the fire and the olive oil added, the tempo slowed as everyone gathered round the fire. The chef browned the chicken and set it aside. He made the Sofitoby browning the pork with onions, garlic, red pepper strips, and fresh tomato. Fish scraps and spices slid into the soup kettle sitting on the coals next to the paella pan. The aromas of the red pepper, onion, and garlic gave us a clue of wonderful things to come. I watched each step and found myself interested in the process. I wanted to learn more. Maybe Carmen would let me help her in the kitchen at home.
They poured the strained seafood broth into the paella pan with the Sofrito and added one handful of rice per person, plus four extra for those who wanted seconds. Saffron strands sprinkled by the chef created an aroma I’d never smelled before, a cross between sweet and pungent. Everyone nodded their heads, “Si, Si” as the rice took on a golden, yellow color. The chicken, more onions, sausage, and the parsley/garlic paste went in next. The chef dropped the white fish, langoustine, mussels, and clams into the hot broth to cook. In a small frying pan on the side with heated olive oil he cooked the cleaned squid and shrimp. He added another tablespoon or two of the parsley/garlic paste.
The chef placed the seafood on top of the cooking rice, and then the squid, shrimp, and fresh peas last. He decorated the top with roasted red peppers, added more seafood brot, and covered the pan with a huge lid. He told us this helped the rice to absorb the flavors.
Who gets to taste and who gets to decide when to take it off the fire? Will there be enough for everyone? I didn’t understand the conversations around this. The chef nodded, but signaled it must rest for ten minutes. Those ten minutes stretched on forever. I’d forgotten my upset stomach. The odors made me hungry and my brothers and sister had their plates in their hands. We didn’t want to wait. They served it with bread, radishes, and lemon wedges.
We took our plates to the fire, so the chef could serve us. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat the squid, but I took one piece. Everything else looked delicious. I didn’t understand about the radishes, but after watching the men shove the rice onto their forks with the radishes, I tried it, too. I cleaned my plate and had seconds, as did most of my siblings. The cooks smiled at our reactions to the meal and the experience.
They’d brought fresh fruit for dessert. We learned that desserts were not common after meals. Fruit and cheese were the usual fare. One man showed us how to peel an apple in one complete peel. Our eyes wide open, he did the same with an orange, then he showed us how to eat a banana by cutting it in half then rolling it in our hands and squeezing the banana up by pinching from the bottom. Even eating fruit was a new experience.
Next, they placed aluminum espresso coffee pots on the coals and soon the aroma of dark coffee wafted its way to the table. We kids didn’t have coffee except for Tommy. Everyone added lots of sugar. They sat back stretching out their full stomachs and sipped the dark, sweet syrup of an afternoon “caffetut.”
© 2019 Suzy Beal
Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com. Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.