On a private ranch flecked with miniature donkeys and tucked east of Austin, a crazy thing will happen Saturday. An acre of backyard space will be cleared. 12 open fires will be started.
25 teams of people will come in the morning, their cars loaded with rice, saffron, olive oil, peppers, shellfish and game. They’ll set three-foot-wide pans up over the fires. And by 2 p.m., 600 people will pour in carrying blankets, chairs and bottles of wine.
It’s the greatest festival you’ve never heard of. Paella Fest draws not only Austinites who buy tickets months in advance every year, but also enthusiasts from Houston, Dallas and Chicago, persuaded to travel in by friends like me who’ve been talking it up for the last 12 months.
For the 10 years this festival has been going on, you’ve had to be in the know, with friends who’ve invited you into the circle. In my case, a friend’s Spaniard ex-boyfriend told us about it four years ago. That relationship is long over, the Spaniard moved away to California, and the friend and I aren’t as close anymore. But my love for Paella Fest lives on.
At first, uninitiated friends would ask whether this was a lunch or dinner event. Both, I’d say, and we eat in between, too. In fact, we even take strolls out on the country roads just so we’re able to come back and eat more.
The feast starts with jumbo jars of red and white sangria. It continues with a spread of Spanish tapas like you’ve never seen outside the motherland. Alysha Cable and her catering company, World Beat Cuisine, fill tables with the mandatory olives, manchego, tortillas españolas and piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, green onion and mint.
They continue with hot offerings. “Besitos” made with Aurelia’s Spanish Chorizo in a honey, brown sugar, and dry sherry reduction. Empanadas stuffed with butternut squash, mushrooms and goat cheese. And 1,200 of World Beat’s legendary albóndigas, or Spanish meatballs, in red sauce.
The tapas spread finishes with huge fruit platters, almond cakes, lemon-almond cookies and Spanish port brownies. And that’s before you even get to the paella.
The communal Spanish rice dish comes in pan after pan from team after team competing in two categories: Traditional and Keep Austin Weird. The very most traditional Spanish paella included rabbit, chorizo and snails, but that’s generally too expensive for today’s teams. Still, chorizo is obligatory; shrimp and pork are common.
The nontraditional category gets inventive. Recent versions include a Western mix of cactus and rattlesnake, a hunter’s dish featuring venison and other game, a green beer lover’s rendition made with cerveza and cilantro, and — my forever favorite — a black paella made with squid ink that tastes like the ocean.
Friends would always ask how long this whole shindig takes. Six to eight hours is the answer — essentially a long afternoon through evening. Finally, they’d ask the entertainment was. “You eat,” they said slowly, “…and what else?”
To be certain, there is entertainment. Musicians and dancers from the Flamencura studio perform traditional flamenco and beyond. They add beauty and true Spanish atmosphere to the feast, to be sure.
But for me, the music has never been the main event. And even though I’m a huge lover of Spain, having studied in Granada during college, the paella isn’t the ultimate point, either. Nor the tapas, nor even the sangria.
To me, it’s about pulling friends together on an idyllic ranch, on an always-gorgeous Texas afternoon in November, and simply drinking, eating, and kicking back picnic-style. Smoke floats through the air. New friends are made. We leave our American agenda (Get to the point, eat, and leave) and enter the European enjoyment mindset, if just for the afternoon.
I wondered if I were the only one for whom the paella doesn’t constitute the big idea, so I called the organizers, a group called Paella Lovers United. Were its members Austin’s biggest Spainophiles?
Turns out one of the main organizers, Vince Parrilla, has a name spelled like the Spanish word for grill but is actually Italian, with a dual citizenship to prove it. The closest he’d gotten to Spanish heritage was a Spanish housemate.
And Kelty Christman, who started the tradition in her South Austin backyard a decade ago, had never been to Spain until two years ago. She had first sampled paella during a study-abroad venture to Chile in 1995. On a homesick dead-winter day, she came together with Brazilians, Britons and internationals from all over at the seafood market in Santiago and ate paella.
Suddenly, her homesickness vaporized. “The most impactful thing for me was feeling at home again. Paella was what brought us together in that moment,” she remembers. “It sounds so cliché, that we came together over food, but it’s such a primal thing. It helps walls come down.”
In keeping with the experience that started it all, Christman says Paella Fest has always been focused on Spain and the Spanish diaspora, but yet bigger than Spain. At the festival, I’d met Middle Easterners, Mexicans and Peruvians, plus a whole lot of Austinites who’d never been to Spain, so this makes sense to me.
“It’s about creating an atmosphere for people who love to travel, love food, love adventure and love that community experience,” Christman says. Just like I thought.
If you want to get in on all this feasting and relaxing, the news is good and bad. This year’s event is sold out at 600 tickets. But if you like the sound of it, stay tuned.
Paella Lovers United plans to incorporate in the coming year and host multiple events. Fabulous food — and better yet, the most relaxing festivals conceivable — are ahead.