Hold The Onions: Spanish Beer Ad Stirs Up A Paella Controversy

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As beer commercials go, it hardly seems controversial. There are no disembodied male arms reaching for the bottle that rests in the small of a prostrate woman’s naked back (thanks, Guinness), and no catfight between scantily-clad women over whether Miller Lite really does taste great or is less filling. Yet this year’s traditional summer television spot for Estrella Damm, which the Catalan beer company Damm released last week, has parts of Spain in conniptions. The source of the outrage is not the commercial’s fleeting display of nudity (bare butts are par for the course in Estrella Damm ads), nor the brief kiss shared by two young women. Rather, an entire region is up in arms over a paella that the spot’s protagonists prepare—oh, the barbarity—with onions.

Every year at this time, Estrella Damm releases a seasonal television commercial designed to embody the fantasy of a Mediterranean summer. The ads all follow a similar recipe: take idyllic scenes of  attractive young people having fun outdoors, add plenty of shots of beer consumption, and set it all to a song by a hip indie band. Inevitably, the spot features beautiful young women in bikinis, guys goofing around, a bit of gorgeous scenery, and lots of making out. Just as inevitably, the song becomes a sort of anthem for that year’s summer, topping the Spanish pop charts and played with the nearly the same frequency on radios and in clubs as the latest Eurovision winner.

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On June 4, “Fantastic Shine,” the catchy tune by the popular Catalan band with the curious name Love of Lesbian – the name actually has nothing to do with those kissing women - that serves as the soundtrack for this year’s commercial goes on sale on iTunes. But by then, some 1.3 million people will have already listened to it on YouTube, thanks  to the controversy that has erupted over the dish that the band prepares in the spot.

“It definitely came as a shock that people would get so upset over a dish in a commercial,” says Love of Lesbian’s lead singer Santi Balmes. “But I guess it’s better than if we were getting all this attention for Paellagate than because they hated the song.”

In the ad, Balmes and some friends light a fire, put a paella pan on top of it, and start adding ingredients: shrimp, mussels, calamari, red peppers, green beans, sausage, and what appears to be the dreaded onion. The dish is far from the recipe for a classic paella valenciana and does not coincide with any authentic regional variation either. “That is what is called… ‘rice with stuff,’” sniffed the newspaper El Mundo in its story about the controversy. “But never paella.”

Originating in the region of Valencia, which borders the Mediterranean Sea and is the primary rice-growing area of Spain, a paella valenciana is traditionally made with rabbit, chicken, and large white beans called garrofón. Onions, which soften the rice and can make it unappetizingly gummy, are traditionally omitted. That said, there are other acceptable paellas: one that adds snails to the above ingredients, for example, or another based solely on shellfish. But contrary to the belief apparently held by many American dinner-party hosts, a paella is not a repository for anything that happens to be in the cook’s refrigerator.

“There are lots of ways to make an authentic paella, but none of them including throwing in any old thing that you want. That’s what guiris do,” says Comunidad de la Paella (Paella Community) spokesman Guillermo Navarro, using Spanish slang for Americans. Founded by a group of Valencian transplants in Madrid, Communidad is an informal group that tries to defend authentic versions of the rice dish from abominations aimed at tourists and other unenlightened eaters. On May 30, the group launched Wikipaella, a crowd-sourced effort to compile recipes for traditional versions. It was they who labeled tweets dedicated to the Estrella Damm commercial with the hashtag #PaellaFail.

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But they are hardly the only ones to express outrage. “An attack on paella” cried Héctor Esteban in his blog for the Valencian newspaper Las Provincias, adding, “Mixed paella exists. It is a foreign aberration that has been inserted into tourist brochures by uneducated rice-makers.” Journalist Manolo Montalt was even cruder. “How about I pee in an Estrella Damm bottle and call it ‘beer?’” he tweeted.

How to explain the fierce reaction? Navarro says that Estrella Damm brought the controversy on itself. “This is a Catalan company that positions itself as Mediterranean, and makes ads intended to celebrate the Mediterranean. So it feels like a betrayal for them to treat this fundamental element of Mediterranean culture so carelessly.”

Ironically, Love of Lesbian is the first band that Estrella Damm has chosen for its summer commercials that is actually from Spain—and even more pertinently, from Catalonia, whose language is similar, if not identical, to that spoken in Valencia. That may be why Balmes says he can at least partly understand the response the ad has provoked. “Spain is a place where regional identities are really strong,” the frontman says. “Regional pride is not exclusive to this country, but it’s definitely an important part of who we are.”

In his defense, Balmes points out that no one actually adds the onion to the paella in the commercial—the ad merely shows someone chopping it. And although he jokes about naming the band’s next album Paella Infidel, he also hopes the controversy will die down soon. “Life is about more than what happens in a commercial, “ he says. “In the end, it’s just an ad.” Nonetheless, he and the rest of the group have already accepted one invitation to try a “real” paella when Love of Lesbian, currently on tour, performs in Valencia later this summer.

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23 comments
n.hellsegg
n.hellsegg

Am I the only one that can tell it's not onions being chopped up but rather a calamari sac, then in the next clip the calamari and other bits of squid are thrown into the pan?

pasiphaeh
pasiphaeh

Hi, I'm Spanish and I'd just like to point out that "guiris" does NOT mean Americans specifically. It means ANYONE who is not Spanish. Also, as many other people have said, there is no such "controversy" going on in Spain. It's just a news article like any other, nothing to make a huge deal about...This is obviously just publicity for the beer company.

jsq.andrin
jsq.andrin

I do not see the point of publishing this article. There is no such general controversy in Spain about this commercial. We all have woke up one day reading in the news that zillions of people were making a fuss because of the ingredients used in the "paella". My impression, is that this controversy has been fabricated by either the bier make, the musical group of the advertising agency (or all of them together), because the real fact is that this particular make of bear is undrinkable, the song is simple and lame and the commercial is quite absurd

elchomad
elchomad

estos anglosajones no tienen ni pajorera idea de la cultura española. se pierden los pobrecitos.

España siendo un país tan pequeño tiene tanta cultura y tan variada que algunos extranjeros poco y mal informados meten la pata como en este articulo. es una paella mixta, que es la que mas se consume en España y no le ponen cebolla. a ver si nos graduamos las lentes. es calamar o sepia.

Yamiote
Yamiote

I would like to know where it says that it is a paella and not 'rice with stuff'. Noone should get that offended if it is not confirmed they are cooking a paella.

JoséAntonioDelgadoRubio
JoséAntonioDelgadoRubio

No hace falta ir a Valencia para comer la mejor paella, aqui en La Mancha estan mejor, y mejores ingredientes, el aceite, el mejor sin duda el de aqui, el azafran como el de aqui ninguno, pollo de corral, conejo... eso si el arroz Valenciano jejeje.

Zabalburu
Zabalburu

"from Catalonia, whose language is similar, if not identical, to that spoken in Valencia" 

I may just be nitpicking on the phrasing, but specialists consider Catalan and Valencian to be one and the same language, with dialectical variations, not separate languages. 

javicava1
javicava1

'guiris' doesn't mean 'americans' but 'tourists' or just 'foreigners'

Boquetron
Boquetron

The word "guiri" isn't just slang used for american tourists but for all international tourists. Just saying! 

21stcentury
21stcentury


Spaniards -- apparently not the friendliest people. I'll be spending my American Tourist moola elsewhere.

onebigrhino
onebigrhino

Posting some of the "real" recipes in English would be great.  I have made hundreds of paellas and even a few for TV shows.  I would love to get a very old recipe and duplicate it.

pasiphaeh
pasiphaeh

@Yamiote It's obviously paella because they use a "paellera" (a large flat pan used to cook paella only and nothing else), regular rice is not made in a paellera.

XuanXoséOñate
XuanXoséOñate

@Zabalburu This is only considered by some so called linguist that try to impose a catalan independist thought by linguistics. This consideration has not been accepted.

JuliaLivaditi
JuliaLivaditi

@21stcenturyOh noooooooooo pleeaaaaaaaaaaseeeeeeee bring your moola to Spain.. (Whatever moola is.. I am guessing a Latin American term for money??? But I guess you don´t know the difference between Spain and Latin America?)

The third biggest tourist counrty in the world (behind France and ahem... USA) is so sad to see you go.

Kind rico señor Americano, give your dinero to the poor people of Spain.

freshwater
freshwater

@21stcentury Please, come to Valencia, taste an authentic paella, go to the Albufera and be amazed by the city ;-)

thefabulousanouska
thefabulousanouska

@21stcentury Just came back from Madrid.  Wonderful, friendly people and you can't beat the free-pour of booze in any bar.  What does a semi-comical fit over Paella have to do with the friendliness of an entire nation?

smithersss
smithersss

@XuanXoséOñate @Zabalburu 

Are you a linguist yourself? Are you a native speaker of Valencian/Catalan? I happen to be both things (Valencian is my mother tongue) and I can only recommend you to mind your own business, i.e. the Galician language! Catalan and Valencian are considered overwhelmingly the same language by romance studies departments all over the world, let alone the University of Valencia. Furthermore, the Valencian High Court has sided repeatedly with the scientific community whenever the Valencian far right has tried to question the unity of this wonderful language. Get your facts straight before you speak!!!

smithersss
smithersss

Seems you missed it the first time, so I'll repeat it again: "Catalan and Valencian are considered overwhelmingly the same language by romance studies departments all over the world, let alone the University of Valencia" Isn't the University of Valencia authoritative enough in linguistic matters in your opinion? What kind of linguist are you? Besides, I´m a Valencian native speaker, so I don´t need a Basque speaker telling me where my own language comes from. Are you on drugs or something? 

XuanXoséOñate
XuanXoséOñate

@smithersss @XuanXoséOñate @Zabalburu Actually, I am a linguist. Luckily, I'm not catalan, I'm basque. Do you think the fact that a High Court says anything about something they don't know anything about makes ti true??? How naive of you....