Imagine my horror. I’d been fantasizing about a beach barbeque in the Var for months. When we arrived for our summer holiday in the south of France there was a total fire ban in the whole region.
My sister in law and brother in law (Ali and Jared) were there for some weeks before us and described the view from their elevated campsite. They saw a large section of forest ablaze less than a kilometre away and the fire appeared to have engulfed a house. The whole campsite had to be evacuated and they were lucky that the fire was controlled before it spread across the road.
We witnessed the charred scar on the hillside each time we drove in or out of the campsite. It was a sobering experience, even for a seasoned pyro like me.
I had planned to have at least one beach barbeque during our holiday and deliberated long and hard as to what it might be.
Eventually, I recalled yet another early 90’s Time Life cookbook (Spain this time) where I learned of the origins of paella. Originally cooked on embers in the fields by farm workers in Valencia, it contained simple local ingredients such as rabbit, snails, garlic, vegetables and of course rice and spices. Perfect before a long siesta in the shade during the hottest part of the day.
Enjoy this mixture of fact, fiction and fantasy, made almost real by these written words.
This is what I would have done.
PAELLA ON THE BEACH (A FANTASY)
I arose as usual around 8am, before the sun found its way to our side of the hill. I had become addicted to striding my way to the top each morning to enjoy the view from Gassin down toward St Tropez for a few minutes before running back down to arrive at the shaded campsite almost an hour later and before anyone else was awake.
Back in the coolness of the west side of our hill, I sat at the outside table and began to prepare my list of things to pack for the evening paella on the beach. The internationalised version; seafood, chicken, vegetables, spices and rice.
FOOD to pack
- 2 cups of paella rice
- 5 cups of water (1 litre)
- Some olive oil in a small jar
- 6 chicken pieces (thighs or legs)
- Chorizo sausage
- Bulb of garlic
- 1 large onion
- 2 capsicums
- 2 tomatoes
- Handful of small live mussels
- Handful of raw prawns
- 2 lemons
EQUIPMENT to pack:
- Paella pan (beloved)
- Grease proof paper
- Kitchen paper
- Lumpwood Charcoal (about 2 litres of large pieces)
- Opinel knife
- Small chopping board
Each night, the sun was setting around 8:15, and by 8:45 it would be pretty much dark. Any wind, by this time, seemed to just conveniently disappear.
I added to my list:
- 7:15 – Light charcoal
- 7:35 – Add chicken, onions, chorizo and saffron
- 7:40 – Add tomatoes, capsicums, garlic and water
- 7:55 – Stir in rice and cover
- 8:10 - Lift cover to add mussels and prawns, cover again
- 8:20 – Remove cover and serve into grease proof paper cones
We spent the morning at the market at the nearby perched village of Ramatuelle, the perfect place for me to gather up the necessary bits to pack into the cool box back at the campsite before departing to the beach.
I had been waiting for this for so long. I wrapped the paella ingredients in foil parcels and carefully packed them in the cool box with the usual selection of bagettes and salads, a few little beers and a bottle of local rose.
We arrived at the beach at Pardigon at around two and set up camp for the day. While the kids mucked about in the sea and sand, my wife Sara and I lounged beneath the umbrellas with our books.
By six, we would normally be packing up after a 5 o’clock drink at the beach bar, but tonight would be different. We started noticing the usual casual exodus as the evening approached; my cue to set up the little domed barbeque that Ali let us use when we stayed in her caravan. It was about 12 cm in diameter, had tripod legs and a bright pink domed lid. The bowl made a perfect base for my steel paella pan.
I started by placing the charcoal over a pile of sticks and leaves the kids had collected earlier for tinder. The tinder caught instantly and before long the charcoal was crackling gently as it started to turn slowly from black to white.
With my Opinel I cut up the chicken (keeping the bones for the stock), onions, chorizo, garlic and vegetables on the chopping board on my lap while I waited for the charcoal to reach the right temperature.
A charcoal or wood fire is perfect for paella. The embers start off hot so you can cook the meat, onions and spices and prepare the stock. They then slowly die down which allows the other vegetables and the rice to cook more gently until the meal is ready to eat. For paella, it’s important not to use too much charcoal as it burns hot and can take a long time to reduce in temperature.
About 25 minutes later I started browning the chicken, chicken bones and chorizo chunks with the saffron and onions over the hot embers in the olive oil, then added the chopped tomatoes, garlic and capsicum, gradually adding water to prevent the food from sticking and to make the stock. I then removed the bones, added the rice and gave it a good stir.
To prevent the news print being in contact with the paella, I laid a few sheets of wet kitchen paper over the rice before soaking 5 or so sheets of newspaper in sea water and laying them on top, being careful to fold up the corners so they didn’t burn from the heat of the embers below.
The fire subsided gently as I had hoped. About 10 minutes later I lifted the paper cover and laid the mussels and prawns on top of the rice. Some time later I started to see lumps appear in the newspaper cover as the mussels steamed open. I lifted the wet paper cover and voila, perfectly cooked rice, vegetables and seafood. And, there was still enough light to savour both the look and taste of the meal.
I tore the grease proof paper into 30 x 30 cm pieces, folded each in half, and half again and then opened the folded paper into a cone in the same way I remembered making filters in chemistry at high school. A sheet of folded newspaper loosely wrapped around the outside added the necessary insulation before spooning the piping hot paella into each cone and topping off with a couple of slices of fresh lemon.
The smell was incredible. A steamy blend of saffron, chorizo, vegetables and sea food with freshly cut lemon.
I ate with my hands, savouring the texture, aroma and taste of each mouthful with sticky fingers that were later cleansed with the remains of the squeezed lemon slices.