Friday, November 7, 2008

Portobello Paella.

Paella. Just saying the word conjures up my trip to London this past June. Yep, not Spain, but London. I love the stuff, and don't eat it nearly enough because of how long it takes to prepare. There was a place in Richmond where I'm from that had it – Café Europa. The name always made me think of the David Sylvian song. We'd always order tapas instead though, because even on the menu it stated, "Preparation Time 1 hour, Please Be Patient." And the one time we did cave in and order it, the rice was way too salty. All that anticipation for nothing. We'd been better off with more anchovies and olives with our peach sangria.

But I do LOVE LOVE LOVE paella. That slightly nutty, crunchy, little bit salty rice mixed in with fresh seafood. It has a smoky spiciness and a comfort food heartiness that I just love. And in London of all places, I had the best of my life so far. At a stand called Jamon Jamon on Portobello Road in Notting Hill.

While in London we stayed quite near Portobello in a flat rented by my in-laws. Yep, the in-laws pretty much ROCK. It was a great vacation – I’ve now decided if I ever win the lottery, this is where I’ll be buying a flat. It’s beautiful. All the houses seem to be white Georgian creatures. Imagine a New York brownstone but in a vivid white with lots of little turrets and columns. With loud bright-colored doors in red and blue. Very pretty.

Portobello Road, its market, and even the bookstore where Hugh Grant attempted to woo Julia Roberts in "that movie" were just two blocks from our flat. Oddly enough, I never quite made it into the bookstore, even though owning a travel bookstore is pretty much my dream job and that particular one is the one that appears in my dreams on a nightly basis. Maybe I thought the dream wouldn't live up to the reality? Or maybe I was too busy buying a coffee or a Guinness in every single one of the coffee shop slash pub slash sandwich counter places which line this road and all the adjacent ones besides. I've had the best pizza of my life on Portobello Road - at a place owned by Italians. It's the essence of London cuteness this road. You could spend every living day browsing for antiques or snapping quaint photographs, stopping off only to have an espresso and a sandwich. Or a lager if it's after 4. Or not.

On Saturdays though, the street changes entirely. Early that morning I imagine if you live anywhere near Portobello you are awakened at dawn by the clanging of metal pipes - booths under construction but only for the day. The place transforms and for many many blocks the entire road is pedestrianized and chock full of wares. Produce, meats, and baked goods share space with florists, handmade crafts, and rock-bottom priced pashminas and handbags. It's glorious. Completely crowded, people pushing and shoving, calling out to the greengrocer their orders for apples and green beans, handing over money, a cacophony of commerce. And then there's the paella.

You don't see it at first, you smell it. That smoky, spicy smell, so strong and pervasive you can smell it blocks down the road. It hits your nose and you think, "My god that smells good. Where is that COMING from?" Like a cartoon the paella smell is a thick smoke that curls itself into a finger and beckons you. Eyes closed in culinary ecstasy, you lift off the ground and start floating down Portobello Road, led by the smoke finger, determined to find out the source of that bliss.

The Jamon Jamon stand is tiny, most of it taken up by two massively huge paella pans. Giant-sized cereal bowls. Cauldrons of goodness that hiss and smoke and send up the most glorious smells you've ever encountered. Caretakers turn and stir with huge wooden paddles, cultivating the flavors with gentle motions. Beautiful to watch, and a great marketing tool. Who would pass up something like that? The line is was ungodly long to purchase this tasty treat.

After much waiting, hubby and I decided on seafood paella. We usually order something different so we can taste each other's meal, but not this time. The seafood just looked too damn good. Huge shrimps, scallops, and crawfish. It also didn't matter that we had just eaten - a sandwich and espresso (of course). No worries, let the overstuffing begin. No tables here, so we took our styrofoam containers laden with paella goodness and began to walk down the road, eating as we went. Or I should say, shove our way through the crowds and attempt to walk - by this time in the afternoon the road was positively impassable by man or beast. People gearing up, buying their sundries for Sunday supper preparations.

The funniest thing happened too as we walked. While we were still near the stand, everyone knew what we were eating, and looked longingly at us. Or looked at us as if to say yeah, I know that's good, have had that before. Wish I had it now.

But as the stand went out of sight, people still looked at us. They'd get this look in their eyes like, Heeeeey, whatya got there? That looks yummy yummy yummy and their eyes would get all big and round - again, like a cartoon. They would point, and their mouths would drop open. Because you see, they had just smelled it, that elixir of the gods, that Spanish fly of food. Paella. Then they see us, and the two things connect. Holy crap I need that now, they think. And the smoky finger grabs them too. They lift off the ground, close their eyes, and float past us to buy their own morsels of yummy.

Whenever I hear the word, "paella" now I think of my Portobello paella. Of Jamon Jamon. It might not even be the best in the world, who knows? But something about eating huge shrimps and yummy rice out of a styrofoam carton as you stroll the market in London was really something. We smelled it, and we bought it. Then we ate it. Instant gratification coupled with cool scenery to wash it down. People looked at us and wanted to be us because of what we were eating. It was the perfect paella package. Only a peach sangria would've made it complete.


where i've escaped...

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