There are some things in Mexico that are habits, customs, traditions. And after spending 15 winters in Mexico, I have become very accustomed to these customs. Because I like them. Especially the ones that happen on Sundays.
Though Mexico has the second largest Roman Catholic population in the world (behind Brazil), fewer than 5% of the more than 100 million Mexicans who are categorized as Roman Catholic in the most recent census regularly attend church on Sundays. Many Mexicans are instead attending restaurants where, in the late morning, they traditionally consume pozole or menudo or, in the early afternoon, paella.
Paella has always been a bit of a problem in San Miguel de Allende. In the years that I’ve been fattening myself up in this town, restaurants that serve paella have come and gone faster than Sinead O’Connor or James Blunt (hope you know of at least one of those one-hit wonders).
Just as memorable as O’Connor’s Nothing Compares To U or Blunt’s You’re Beautiful was a black paella I had more than four years ago. It was prepared by a chef called Jorgé Sala Corts at a place called Casa de las Conservas. Now I thought Jorgé Corts had gotten much more into the B&B biz and wasn’t doing much cooking anymore. I was wrong. Jorgé has a new place, a very ambitious menu, and is making paella as good as ever.
One recent Sunday was a special Sunday. Our daughter Chantelle was in town and I knew it wasn’t going to be a menudo or pozole Sunday. It had to be a paella Sunday, a special paella Sunday.
I emailed a few of our friends who had met our daughter and ten of us were ready for paella. Well almost ready. One of the few negatives of paella is it is salo bajo reserva, it must be ordered in advance.
There are three paellas on Casa de la Conservas menu. I knew I absolutely wasn’t going to go for the vegetarian. I thought about going for the negra then thought some of the uninitiated might turn their nose up at the squid ink that gives it its color. My decision was to order the mariscos, a style that doesn’t stray far from the most traditional of paellas, Valenciana and, after all, chef Jorgé was born and raised in Valencia.
The new Casa de las Conservas is located in Colonia San Antonio, a pleasant, mostly downhill stroll from San Miguel’s jardin. The restaurant is set in the towering courtyard of a 19th Century home. The furnishings are mid-century modern. The decor a cool black and white.
We started with a plate of cured meats that included what I consider the absolute paramount of pork, jamon Iberico. The burgundy red meat comes from a breed of black-hoofed pigs that are started on barley and corn, then are allowed to roam through forests, feeding on roots, chestnuts and acorns. After salting and drying, the legs are hung and cured for at least 12 months.
Accompanying the jamon Iberico were chorizo ibérico y salchichon ibérico. The Spanish meats were nicely topped with walnuts and sundried tomatoes.
The house salad is a mix of crisp lettuces paired with poached pears and goat cheese and topped with a citrus and honey vinaigrette. Caramelized sunflower seeds add a sweet and nutty crunch.
Next to arrive at the table were the plates of sunshine, the paella. The quantity of seafood was generous with mussels, clams, good size shrimp, and…surprise…cuttlefish, a nice change from the squid you usually find in Mexican paella. The juices from the shellfish and the rich taste of the shrimp shells had nicely penetrated the rice.
Now some people like their paella rice to be liquidy. Other people like the rice to be fluffy. I like my paella rice oily with a good amount of give on the teeth and chef Jorgé’s was. Don Day’s Wife also liked the texture which means it was greasy in a good way.
Paellas are also rated by the amount of saffron that goes into them. I couldn’t tell you how much goes into the paella at Casa de las Conservas. For, despite decades of paella training, I can never be sure whether it’s saffron or tumeric or safflower or something else altogether that’s adding that sunny glow to the dish. Though I hate to admit it, I, in fact, can’t even come up with words to describe what saffron tastes like.
Knowing that you can double the ingredient cost with only a pinch of saffron, I asked Jorgé Corts for his opinion on using saffron or a substitute in his paellas. Jorge told me, “We never use substitutes because the substitute cannot reach the unmistakable taste and reddish color of the saffron threads. I understand that for economy many people can resort to artificial colors or flavors but we want to maintain the tradition and exclusivity of our rice dishes and paellas.”
The final opinion on the paella came from our guest of honor, our daughter, Chantelle.
“I thought it was absolutely awesome”, said Chantelle.
As Yoremem, San Miguel’s legendary cantante serenaded us with Besame Mucho, Chantelle, a flan afficionada, decided we should try both the traditional and the coffee flavored custards.
Her vote went for the plain. My vote went for the café. Both of us agreed it was a very tough decision.
As we tried to get the tell-tale paella orange from around our cuticles, I realized that I had discovered my new palace of paella. Now I’m anxious to experience a lot of other intriguing things on Casa de las Conservas’ menu.
Casa de las Conservas is located at Calle 28 de Abril Norte #61, at the corner of Prolongación Pila Seca in San Miguel de Allende. The restaurant opens only under reservation, regardless of the number of people who book. Jorgé Corts’ partner Alba told me, “This is because we want to maintain the quality and authentic taste that only a rice specialist can offer.”