Paella – the iconic Valencian rice dish made with fish, meat or vegetables – has been officially recognized for its cultural significance. In October, the local government of the region of Valencia in Spain declared paella to be an asset of intangible cultural interest.
The recognition decree recognizes the tradition and cultural importance of preparing and tasting paella, describing the dish as representative of “the art of joining and sharing”. It establishes a series of safeguarding measures, including the identification, description, study and documentation of paella so that its recipe can be passed on to future generations.
Oddly enough, the decree explains that different ingredients can be used for making paella, recognizing that there are several versions of the recipe and methods of preparation. The decree mentions rice as a necessary ingredient to properly prepare the dish and gives recommendations on how it should be added and cooked.
The recognition follows a request from Valencia City Council presented in April and supported by local politicians. It was intended to protect the rich history and tradition of paella, after many years of variations on the recipe and controversies over its preparation.
The inclusion of chorizo sausage in paella is one such controversial variation, as is the limited edition paella sandwich from UK supermarket Tesco.
The origin of paella, first a food for farmers and peasants, dates back hundreds of years. An 18th century manuscript refers to paella or “Valencian rice”, explaining the techniques for making this dish and specifying that the rice must eventually dry out. Paella gained international recognition at the start of the 20th century, especially as the region of Valencia began to attract tourists.
This recognition may be the first step in a wider process that could finally make paella a part of UNESCO’s intangible heritage. Other musical, artistic and gastronomic cultural expressions have been protected under this program, including flamenco music, the Mediterranean diet and the Neapolitan pizza.
This would bring the recognition that has just been given in the Valencian region to a more global level. The approval of a prestigious organization like UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) would be important. The message that “authentic” paella is made to certain quality standards would be amplified internationally.
The protection of heritage, both locally and internationally, certainly reinforces the importance that an object or practice has in the life of a community. This status can be used by traditional producers as a powerful marketing tool to promote foods prepared to certain approved standards.
But it does not offer a monopoly on the use of a recipe or name, as would a patent or registration as a geographical indication (for example, a sparkling wine from the Champagne region in France ). The intangible heritage status does not give local producers in Valencia exclusive rights over the paella cooking process or the use of the “paella” brand. This means that anyone who wants to produce and sell paella products can label them as such, even outside of the Valencia region and Spain.
The intangible heritage status does not prevent people from depositing the term “paella” either. In the EU, the trademarks “Authentic Paella way Recipe” or “Paella Rica autentico sabor” have been registered by companies selling ready-to-use food products. These brands will continue to exist even after paella has been granted cultural heritage status in Spain and abroad.
What could give paella stronger legal protection is registration as a traditional specialty guaranteed by the EU (TSG). Like cultural heritage recognition, TSG recordings can be used by traditional paella makers (who follow required standards) to better market and communicate the cultural value of their products.
The status of the JST would give an additional (more substantial) layer of protection, as opposed to national and UNESCO intangible heritage awards. Specifically, traditional paella makers would be able to prevent other people from abusing the name of the paella in a way that might confuse consumers.
A famous example of TSG protected is mozzarella cheese. Such protection means that mozzarella sold in the EU must be produced according to a traditional recipe. Those who do not follow these rules may be prevented from labeling their product as mozzarella.
To obtain a TSG registration, it is necessary to demonstrate the use of the product in the domestic market for a period of at least 30 years (this presumably guarantees the transmission between generations). Paella would clearly meet this requirement. Other Spanish products have received TSG status, including jamon Serrano and tortas de aceite from Castilleja de la Cuesta, both of which have received this recognition.
Paella purists would also benefit from this added protection. But in the meantime, they should be content to rely on recognition as intangible cultural good – one step at a time.