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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