Sunday, November 7, 2010

Paella Cook-Off III

One of the measures of the development of a community is the establishment of recurring traditions or events that provide continuity. One such event that has achieved that status here in Loreto, and specifically the Nopolo area that surrounds the Loreto Bay development, is the now annual Paella Cook-off.

This year marked the third time there has been this competition and also the third time it has been featured on this Blog. For those of you who have not been reading “Living Loreto” since it’s beginning and missed the earlier postings ("A Big Week in Loreto", Nov. '09, "An Extrodinary Day", Nov. '08) the first event was held two years ago in the backyard and patio of Shelia and Manfred, the couple who were responsible for originating it.

Due to the success of that first competition, last year it was moved nearby to the
grounds of the Fonatur Offices here in Nopolo to accommodate the larger numbers of people from the town and surrounding area who wanted to compete and enjoy the variations on this traditional Mediterranean dish. This year, with even more interest in attendance, larger premises were sought and the INN at Loreto Bay was chosen to hold the competition. This was by far the best set-up for the event so far, and so I was pleased to hear an announcement by the organizers, the INN will now be the venue for the foreseeable future.

This positive development has been made possible with the co-operation of the Hotel Management and Homex, the new Owner’s of the property. I think this is an important indication of their desire to participate and encourage such community building events as they take on a higher profile with their "Las Villas de Mexico at Loreto Bay" development, which I have mentioned earlier this year and will no doubt be the subject of future postings.

The founding sponsor of the event, the Roganto Winery of Ensenada Baja, had a big presence with two Paella pans in competition as well as a popular and crowded table offering sample tastings of several of their delicious products as well as sales of all to hard to find fine wines made here in the Baja. Without the continued support of this much honoured vintner, it is safe to say that the Paella competition would probably not have celebrated it’s third anniversary and certainly not have grown to the size and popularity it has achieved.

The format of the competition is simple. Cooking teams volunteer to take part, with participation ranging from professional chefs of local restaurants to groups of friends and couples who all share a love of preparing fine food. Each competitor is responsible for providing all their own equipment including propane fired burners, Paella pans (some measuring up to 4 feet across) and all of their own ingredients.

While each recipe varies, in addition to a base of slowly cooked saffron rice these ingredients usually include seafood and shellfish, along with personal accents like chorizo sausage, chicken and a variety of vegetables. Preparing large quantities
(on average a competitor’s pan will serve about 20 people) of a dish that includes delicacies like lobster, scallops, octopus and shrimp adds up to a significant cost for each participant. In addition to the investment in the equipment and the cost of the ingredients, there is a growing trend to decorate each of the cooking stations with tasteful and traditional accents and “decor” to stage the presentation of the food.

After months of planning and organization, still managed in large part by Sheila with help from friends, the event began before 9:00 am when the cooking teams begin to arrive with their equipment and ingredients and start setting up in their designated location. This year the large grassy courtyard of the INN was the scene of these preparations and the perimeter of this area was surrounded by ten stations where the various teams set up under awning tents.

In addition to these food preparation areas there was another station where the organizers provided appetizers, salads and deserts to be distributed during the day
and the all important beverage bar where bottled water, soft drinks, Sangria (also donated by Roganto) and, of course ice cold cervesa were available. Another Loreto tradition was also represented, a beautifully quilted wall tapestry that had been crafted by skilled volunteers was on display and raffle tickets were available for a pre-Christmas drawing, the proceeds from which will benefit charity in the town of Loreto.

My modest contribution to the day’s activity was to set up my portable PA system and play music to cook by, followed later by music to eat by. So I was in the perfect place to observe all the preparations and have the opportunity to meet many of the participants, both cookers and diners, during the course of the day.

The center of the courtyard area that was enclosed by these stations was filled by
tented awnings provided by Corona Breweries, protecting a dozen large round tables each with up to ten chairs protected from the always perfect Baja sun. While some of the competitors were still setting up, the first of the diners started to arrive, purchasing their reserved 200 peso (less than $20) wristband passes and strips of drink tickets. These hard-core foodies circulated past the competitor’s areas, observing the preparations and visiting with each other and the cooks.

As more and more people arrived during the morning the whole courtyard area took on the atmosphere of a fiesta and community get-together as groups of new and old friends relaxed and chatted at shaded tables enjoying cold drinks and plates of tasty appetizers including spiced olives, hummus and local goat cheese tastefully marinated in herbed brine. Many pictures were taken and as the morning progressed and with the tantalizing aromas of the many pans simmering with their Paellas, the excitement grew with the crowd’s appetite.

Finally, as the noon hour approached the judging process began. A team of judges, including several of the leading local restauranteurs as well as several other individuals began by first examining each of the finished pans for their appearance and presentation. Following this, a second round of judging was done, this time sampling a portion of only the rice from each contestant’s pan in a blind comparison from portions identified by random numbers.

As this judging wrapped up, it was thankfully time for the over 200 hungry diners,
who had now assembled to sample the delicious results of the morning’s labour by the contestants, and lines quickly formed all around the perimeter of the courtyard. Some people choosing to begin at one or other of their favourite’s, while other, less discriminating just joined a convenient line up – but there were NO bad choices!

After everyone had a generous plateful of one or more versions of the dishes, the
tables were soon filled with happy eaters enjoying the savoury delights that were the object of the whole exercise. As this feast came to an end there was the anticipated announcements of the three winners of the presentation award followed by the three judged best overall in the all important flavour award. Each winner received a recurring award trophy and a token medal they could keep marking their achievement.

The winning teams were as follows:





Following the presentation of the awards, the various Sponsors received appreciative recognition, including the new Developer of the Loreto Bay project, Homex, who announced a further raffle draw to be held the following day at the site of their two model homes, where they would be awarding three prizes of complimentary, all inclusive weekend’s accommodations at the INN to some lucky attendees.

And so, by mid-afternoon all of the day’s preparations (which had begun weeks before for many participants) were packed up again and soon the INN’s courtyard began to be returned to it’s original condition. As the well fed, and in some cases, well rewarded, people of the community drifted on to whatever the remainder of their day held (in my case a well deserved afternoon siesta!) we all shared in the afterglow of good food and drink, shared in beautiful surroundings on a day of predictably perfect weather. This idyllic day would also importantly contribute over $50,000 pesos to those most in need in the larger community that has welcomed us to share in this perfect piece of Paradise. Surely this day is one of the best examples of the synergy that makes every day here a special part of “Living Loreto”!