Today, Spain’s signature dish is served at restaurants from London to Los Angeles. But for more than 120 years, one eatery has set the standard for what paella should be.

Walking along the vast sweep of Valencia’s Malvarrosa beachfront as the waves lapped the shore, I came to the first in a long line of restaurants, the light and airy La Pepica. I’d arrived just before lunch service and the chefs were lighting up the wood-fuelled stoves and pulling down the heavy carbon steel pans as part of their daily hour-long prep. Between walls of decorative blue-and-white tiles, huge bowls of chopped chicken, rabbit, snails and beans stood on the counters, ready to become part of Spain’s most famous dish: paella valenciana.

Today, paella is served at every Spanish restaurant from London to Los Angeles, but this ancient rice dish originated in the fields and lagoons around Valencia. And if you speak to any local about paella here, they will inevitably mention La Pepica, which has not only become synonymous with paella but an emblem of Valencia itself. La Pepica is one of the oldest restaurants in Valencia, and for the last 121 years, this seaside staple has set the bar for many of the city’s best paella restaurants. It has invented two new types of paella, which restaurants across Spain and the rest of the world now replicate; and a series of visits in 1959 inspired writer Ernest Hemingway to wax lyrical about the place, helping to popularise paella around the world.

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Chef Honorino Antón and his team soon got to work. First, the chefs added meat or seafood to hot olive oil. In some pans, chicken and rabbit sizzled, while in others, pink prawns danced and spat. One chef was in charge of preparing the sofrito – an essential part of any paella dish, consisting of sautéed tomatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil. Clouds of paprika and steam began to fill the air, and Honorino sprinkled in saffron threads, changing the colour of the ingredients to an intense yellow. The very last ingredient is the most important: the rice, which the cooks poured in a cross-like motion, allowing for an even spread on the bottom of the pan as it the grains fell between the other ingredients.

“To ensure a paella is authentic, the ingredients must be fresh and the paella must be made to order,” explained Gustavo Sierra, chef and La Pepica’s manager. “It’s important that the rice is just cooked, not underdone and not over. It must still have a slight chew, as the Italians say, ‘al dente’. It’s also essential that the rice is loose and hasn’t stuck together, thus maintaining its texture and shine.”

There are many places here [that] serve excellent paellas, but La Pepica remains one of the most traditional and popular places to eat it

Most Valencians would agree, and would also add that there should be no more than un ditet (“a finger width” in Catalan) of rice covering the bottom of the pan. This ensures that the rice cooks evenly and that the stock can reach the base, creating a kind of caramelised, almost burnt layer of crunchy rice on the bottom. This is, in fact, one of the tastiest parts of the paella and even has a special name: socarrat (from the Spanish verb, socarrar, meaning “to singe”). At La Pepica, the paella has plenty of socarrat due to the intense heat induced at the end of the cooking process, making a crackling sound and slightly charring the rice. It’s also especially flavourful because of the paella pans, which have been in use for many years.

La Pepica opened in 1898, when King Alfonso XIII granted Francisco Balaguer, along with 44 others, permission to set up small restaurants in the wooden barracks next to the beach – these were some of the first to serve paella in the city. After a large storm destroyed the barracks in 1924, the current restaurant was built. Like Valencia’s early farmers who cooked rice- and meat-based dishes, the chefs at La Pepica always cooked in open kitchens on wood-fired ovens. Over the decades, this style inspired other restaurants in Valencia to follow suit, and helped to establish how an authentic paella should be prepared.

Today, La Pepica is run by Balaguer’s grandson, Pepe, who has stayed true to the family’s time-honoured way of cooking paellas, using the exact same recipes as his grandfather and cooking them over wood-fired ovens in an open kitchen. “This is the tradition of the house,” said Pepe. “There is something special about live fire. It can’t be explained, but there’s nothing better than a paella cooked over a wood fire. It gives the rice a different aroma and taste.” 

While La Pepica has stayed true to its roots, most of Valencia’s restaurants now prepare their paellas on gas or sometimes electric stoves.

“There are many places here [that] serve excellent paellas, but La Pepica remains one of the most traditional and popular places to eat it,” said Carolina Miñana, a chef and teacher at the Valencian School of Rice and Paella, which is dedicated to spreading the origins and importance of the dish and teaching students the correct way of cooking it. “This is firstly because of its history, and secondly because of its location on Malvarrosa Beach.”

Today, many people around the world associate paella with ingredients like mussels and shrimp, and the most common type of paella is the paella de mariscos (seafood paella). Even in Spain, paella is most often eaten with large family groups at the beach. In fact, in Valencia, some of the best and most authentic paella restaurants can be found just a few steps from La Pepica by the sea, such as La Marcelina, L'Estimat and Casa Navarro. However, the original paella, the so-called paella valenciana, does not contain any seafood at all, but is instead made with rabbit, chicken, snails and beans.

“It was the rice farmers who actually created the first paellas, adding animals and ingredients that they would normally have raised at home or had to hand in the fields,” Miñana explained.

Historians differ on the exact origin of paella; however, when the Moors conquered Spain around 711AD, they began growing rice in the country. During the week, people would eat rice on its own because it was cheap, and at the weekends, they would eat it alongside a meat or fish stew. Over the years, the stew evolved and people loved its versatility, and the way in which they could add seasonal produce to the dish.

The first recipes showing how to cook these rice dishes only appeared between 1750 and 1800, which describes the process less like a stew and more like the drier paella dishes eaten today. However, the word “paella” does not appear anywhere until around 1900, when it was mentioned in an article. Before this, it was just referred to as simply “arroz valenciana” (“Valencian rice”) and was typically cooked at home during family gatherings.

Ultimately, paella is a dish that unites, hence its importance.”

Because of its seaside setting, open kitchens and flame-singed socarrat, La Pepica became known as the place to eat paella in Valencia in the early 20th Century. This was also thanks to the great Valencian painter Joaquin Sorolla, who dined there often. One time, the artist ordered the seafood paella and had trouble peeling the prawns and deshelling the shellfish. So back in the kitchen, Francisco’s wife, Josefa, made him a special paella with pre-peeled prawns and de-shelled shellfish, so he would be able to eat it more easily. Other restaurants soon started replicating the dish, and today, this widely popular paella variety is known throughout Spain as arroz del senyoret or arroz del señorito (“gentlemen’s rice”).

Years later, La Pepica invented a second type of paella: the paella de verduras (vegetable paella) in order to accommodate the former queen of Spain, Sofía, who dined at the restaurant and is said to be a vegetarian. The paella de verduras has since been adopted at Spanish restaurants all over the world, catering to the growing number of vegetarians and vegans.

“What began as novelty, soon became a habit and then an important part of the food culture of our people,” explains Miñana. “It’s a dish associated with family gatherings and celebrations. Ultimately, paella is a dish that unites, hence its importance.” 

At around 14:00, families from all over the city started gathering at La Pepica to eat paella for their Sunday lunch. The restaurant’s main entrance is at the front through the kitchens, while the back entrance faces the sea. So as guests arrive, they pass the chefs and can watch the theatrical dance of the paellas being made over the open flames while they wait. Today, several paellas are being made, from the traditional paella valenciana to the paella de mariscos, and even lobster paella and black rice made with squid ink.

Waistcoat-clad waiters carried huge pans of paella out from the kitchens to a large family of hungry diners. It was the traditional valenciana one, made with La Pepica’s original recipe of rabbit, chicken, snails, olive oil, salt, rosemary, saffron, sweet paprika, tomato, garrofon and bachoqueta (Valencian white and green beans), and, of course, rice.

Today, celebrities from all over the world have followed in the footsteps of the former king and queen of Spain, Juan Carlos I and Sofía, as well as Sorolla and Hemingway. In fact, Hemingway used to hang out at La Pepica so often in 1959 that he’d occasionally help in the kitchens. He even wrote about the restaurant in his novel, The Dangerous Summer, stating: “Dinner at Pepica’s was wonderful… the seafood and the Valencian rice dishes were the best on the beach”, thus helping to popularise paella abroad, too.

I sat down at a table, ready to try La Pepica’s paella for myself. Like Queen Sofía, I am vegetarian, so I ordered the dish the restaurant’s chefs created for royalty, paella de verduras. It arrived still sizzling in the pan with the pungent smell of garlic wafting through the air. The dish was a riot of colour, studded with ruby red peppers, sage-coloured artichokes and wide, flat green beans, and topped with lemon wedges. I squeezed some lemon over the dish and took a large spoonful, straight from the pan. I could hear crackles as the spoon scraped the socarrat from the bottom. The rice was the perfect combination of soft and chewy, just as Sierra had described. I could taste the earthy, floral flavour of the saffron, followed by the sweet and slightly smoky paprika. With every bite came a new texture and flavour, the sweetness of the red pepper, the sourness of the lemon and a salty taste like the sea.

As I sat devouring my paella, I thought about the way that Hemingway famously described the restaurant: “The place was run by a family and everyone knew everyone else. You could hear the sea breaking on the beach and the lights shone on the wet sand.”

More than a century later, it seems little has changed, and as I scraped the last crunch of socarrat from the pan, I understood why La Pepica’s signature dish was destined to become a household name. 

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