It was a long bus ride from Granada to Valencia, more than eight hours in a seat with the Spanish countryside rolling by. I check into my hotel, drop my stuff in my room, and start bouncing excitedly. This entire time I’ve been in Spain – three weeks so far – I’ve eaten well, very well, but resisted gorging on one of the most traditional dishes. Until now, here in Valencia along the Mediterranean coast, the city in which it originated. Tonight I will feast on paella!
Rice was brought to Spain in the 10th century by the Moors who conquered the Iberian peninsula and would rule over some or all of it for the next five centuries. However, paella as a dish didn’t seem to emerge for hundreds of years. It is the quintessential hybrid dish: spices from the East meet with local vegetables and proteins and an imported grain. The name paella actually refers to a pan; it is Valencian for frying pan. Today, though, paella is cooked only with a flat bottomed pan, typically with two handles, and made of steel. Why flat bottomed? It gets the rice all crispy and perfect!
Traditionally, paella came in two varieties: Valenciana, made with chicken, rabbit, and snails; and seafood, with a variety of shellfish. Modernity has added vegetarian paella, mixed (a combination of Valenciana and seafood), and arroz negro – black rice – a seafood paella made with squid ink to dye the whole thing black. All varietals have two common ingredients: short grain rice (long grain would cook to mush in such a long preparation) and saffron, one of the most expensive substances on the planet by weight. Fortunately you won’t need much saffron for a paella.
My first night in Valencia, I enjoy a mixed paella, though being a novice I don’t order an appetizer and the paella – made fresh – takes almost 40 minutes to come out. Other than having to watch out for shells and bone of the various yummy proteins inside, it is pretty amazing.
The next night is arroz negro at the Marina Beach Club. Wow! This is a perfect dish. It is salty, each piece of seafood is perfectly cooked, and the squid ink makes for a fascinating eating experience. (Don’t worry, your tongue is only black for a few minutes.)
This is one of the best things I ate in Spain!
However, I came to Valencia not just to eat, but also to learn. I want to know the secrets of paella from a master. The wonderful people of My First Paella lead classes each day, and offered to include me. The class begins at the local market, where our instructor Mary shows us how to shop for all of the ingredients we will be using. How do we pick the right beans? What should our shrimp look like if we were to make seafood paella (we are making Valenciana today)? It is a wonderful introduction and I appreciate the reasons for each veggie’s inclusion much more. (For instance, there is a variety of bean we are including that starts purple but changes to green when it’s cooked. Awesome!)
The purple ones turn green!
After about a ten minute walk, we reach My First Paella’s kitchen, and we are greeted by Jordi, our chef. I only wish more greetings went this way, as this one includes sangria and some appetizers he is cooking up.
Sangria makes everything more fun.
Our group of eight English speakers from all over is divided into two groups for the main event, and Jordi guides us through each step of making a traditional paella Valenciana. I find myself cooking chicken and rabbit pieces, while others in my group oversee vegetable preparation (I’m glad not to be turning the artichokes) and blooming the saffron. The fruits of all of our work come together when it all hits the pan, and then we pour in the rice. Then… waiting. Unlike a risotto, paella is left alone when the rice enters the mix. This way, as the liquid cooks off, the rice at the bottom of the flat pan will crisp, giving the dish its signature texture.
Jordi demonstrates how to toast the saffron to bring out the oils before blooming it in hot water.
As we wait, Mary and Jordi answer questions, pour wine and shots, and feed us more tapas. It’s a rough life, but we are up for the challenge. And then, with Jordi coaching us as to how to tell when it is done, all of a sudden it is. Communal tables await, and oh, the heap of paella that comes our way!
Yeah, I made this!
Dessert and, of course, more wine follow, but we are all so gorged on the main course of awesomeness (a tagline totally fitting for paella in general and the one I helped make especially) that we barely peck at luscious strawberries. In total, the experience was only a few hours, but friends made cooking are friends for life!
I’ve been very lucky in my travels to be able to have some amazing experiences. I’ve written about many of them, and don’t need to rehash here. But this was one of the most special to me. Food occupies an important place in my life, and learning to make the traditional Spanish favorite in the city from which it came will be one of the experiences I will hold with me forever.
So which paella was best? That’s like picking a favorite child or a favorite place I’ve visited. Each one had something amazing about it. So what to do? Try them all!!
Thank you to My First Paella for graciously including me in your class, and for teaching me all about paella. You are all invited to my first paella party after COVID-19 is done! Seriously, I cannot recommend this experience highly enough.
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