......just one of the spinning pigs
This past Saturday, November 8th, I was fortunate enough to secure a coveted position as one of the six judges at the 12th Annual Paella Lovers United 2014 Paella Cookoff, which was held on a ranch out Webberville Road. About 600 devotees in attendance were just as delighted as I was. The cooks manning the flat, shallow paella pans take their paella cooking very seriously, and a bite of any batch will immediately indicate that they know what they’re doing. I was flabbergasted at the number of teams of Spanish provenance that entered, as I had no idea that Austin was that prolific in its population of Spaniard ex-pats.
The site where it was held is a ranch owned by Will and Rebecca Ponder, who were off celebrating Will's parents' 74th wedding anniversary. Their son Miles is an owner of White Hat Rum, which is an Austin-based craft-distilled rum, and one of the event sponsors. Miles gave Emmett Fox, one of the head judges, a couple of bottles of a special oak barrel-aged release, which was excellent sipping stock; kudos Miles, and thanks to Emmett for sharing.
We da Bomba, the Caribbean jerk-inspired "Keep Paella Weird" entry
The event is set up in a big corral with 13 cooking stations, and a central oak fire for the teams to pull coals from to heat their paella pans. The 24 competing teams turn in their entries sequentially, between 2pm and 7:30. As soon as the team presents their paella, and describes it to the judges and the judges extract a sample, it is offered to the throngs for tasting. The crowd is also feasting on roast pig, fresh oysters, tapas, and big, massive batches of paella prepared by the hosts. Booths offer beer, cider, sangria, and wine, and there’s a music stage pumping out flamenco and Spanish music, both live and DJ. It’s all Spain-centric, and all there in support of the paella.
La Santa Inquisición's squid ink paella, with polka dot team introduction and adorable tykes. The Grand Champion.
Paelleros Místicos, with their "Weird" category entry of "Forbidden" black rice, porcini, and pork (note the ring of unctuous pork belly circling the central cabeza)
The judging criteria is based on many factors, including team spirit. Some of the groups were as rabidly excited as a section of the bleachers at a Real or Barça soccer match, with choreographed cheers, banners, smiling children offering bribes, boom boxes with paella presentation soundtracks, etc. The more important criteria include appearance and presentation, ingredient integration, taste profile, texture and doneness of the rice and of the proteins, and presence of the critically important soccarat, that deliciously crusty layer of caramelized rice that forms on the bottom of the pan. Cook it just right and it’s orgasmic; cook it a tiny bit too long, and you’ve turned the whole batch bitter (and angered the rice gods in the process). Cook it less than required and you end up with a mushy mess devoid of crustiness. Timing is paramount, and all of the components must be in balance. A proper paella is alchemy involving the fire, the pan, the rice, the stock (to be considered as a separate criteria next year), the secondary ingredients (aromatics, vegetables, and proteins), and how all of that is manhandled and magically manipulated into the finished dish.
The entry from El Plat del Día, with juicy rabbit
We sampled paellas that were so authentic, they could just as easily have been cooking over a fire in Valencia, they were that authentic (these were entered in the most popular category, “Traditional”). There were batches cooked with all manner of seafood, as well as chicken and rabbit, pork and chorizo, lamb, and even one vegetarian version. Artichokes, fava beans, peas, green beans (not the flat Romano-style ones, unfortunately), porcini and maitake mushrooms, olives, peppers, and all kinds of other foods found their way into the pans. La Santa Inquisisión’s squid ink version was brilliantly composed, with rich flavor that complimented the moist seafood, and a seductive, crusty soccarat hugging the bottom. There were entries in the “Keep Paella Weird” category that rivaled the flavor of the traditional paellas. Jerk paella or a porky batch made with black “forbidden” rice sounds weird, I know, but you really should have tasted it.
Pepa (R), helping present the entry from Los Alarcanes de Alicante
To be completely honest, after tasting 24 different batches of paella (some spectacularly good, and none that could be considered inedible), I was starting to get a little burned out on paella by the end of the evening. It wouldn’t have been my meal of choice for the next week or so, but finding that much creative Iberian culinary talent perched over a bunch of smoky fires out in the floodplains of deep east Austin is a thing of beauty. It is definitely an event that you should be adding to your food event calendar for next year, and hopefully I’ll be judging again.
Langoustines chasing lobster, a traditional entry from team Berberechos and the last paella judged
Winners – Traditional
1. La Santa Inquisición (Overall Champion)
2. El Plat del Día (Second Place overall)
3. Cocina Gringa
Winners – Keep Paella Weird
1. We da Bomba (Third Place overall)
2. Paelleros Místicos
3. Madrid in Austin – Students Beat Teachers!
Mick Vann ©