Disclosure: I was given a complimentary cooking class in exchange for this review but as always, all opinions are my own.
“Paella, paella, sal buena, sal buena.” we repeated, pointing to our nearly complete paella.
No, we weren’t performing some sort of strange spell. This was the final step in creating the perfect paella, according to Chef Beni at the Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana (The School of Valencian Rice Dishes and Paella) in Valencia, Spain. But let’s rewind to the beginning of the class.
Since I was spending my summer in Valencia, I was fortunate enough to have sampled my fair share of rice dishes, though none of them were the traditional paella Valenciana. I was nearing the end of my stay in the city and knew that I had to sample the best one I could find. But why simply eat the best one when I could learn to make it myself? I’d attempted to cook paella a couple of times in Los Angeles and failed miserably, so I was eager to learn the secrets from the masters themselves. Besides, taking a cooking class really makes me appreciate the time and effort that goes into dishes.
Enter the Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana. This school has a reputation as one of the best paella places in Valencia, both to learn and eat the traditional dish. My friend Josie happened to be in town visiting, so the both of us opted to don our chef hats and aprons (literally) and get to cooking.
Before we headed to the kitchen, we had to source the ingredients. What better place to get them than the Mercado Central de Valencia?
Our first stop was to pick up the main ingredients: chicken and rabbit. The Mercado’s ingredients are always fresh – a crucial component of a perfect paella.
Next, we purchased the veggies. Paella Valenciana traditionally uses perona (a broad string bean), garrafó (lima bean), roget (couldn’t find the translation) and tomatoes, although this changes seasonally. Tomatoes are always a necessity and the Valencian ones put American tomatoes to shame!
What else goes into paella? Why, only the best quality saffron and paprika out there. Many tourist shops in Valencia will sell a paella spice mixture, but that’s mostly food coloring. Buy the good quality ingredients! Coincidentally, we bought saffron from the same booth that I’d visited on my food tour the month prior, so I knew it was the good stuff. We picked up our last ingredient – rosemary – then headed back to the school, eager to get started.
Once we donned our dorky cute hats and aprons, we headed inside. There were five of us in total, and we listened carefully as Chef Beni explained the history of paella, as well as some of the rules for cooking a good one.
Paella is actually named after the pan it’s cooked in. The paella pan is large and flat and completely balanced. This is crucial since ingredients are cooked one at a time in the center of the pan then moved to the edges. The dish itself originated in Albufera, a small farm town about 30 minutes from Valencia. Traditionally, paella is cooked on an outdoor stove, but most restaurants use a gas burner due to safety regulations.
The paella making process is long and extensive – it took us newbies around 2 hours from start to finish. The ingredients that take the longest to cook are cooked first in the middle of the pan, before being moved to the edges as they near completion. This meant that we started with the chicken while prepping the veggies, then added the rabbit to the mix.
Prepping veggies included removing the lima beans from their pods, tearing the green and roget beans into bite-sized pieces, and grating the tomatoes into a purée. I loved that we were only using fresh ingredients!
Once the proteins were cooked, we moved them to the edges of the pan, where they’re exposed to less heat. We then repeated the cooking process with the beans. It’s worth noting that the stove top we were using had two separate controls within the same burner – an interior one and an exterior one. It’s all in the details!
Next, we added in the tomato purée and were instructed to cook it until it smelled smoky. Josie and I couldn’t actually figure out when it was done, but luckily Chef Beni came to the rescue.
Our next step was to mix everything together in the center and top it with some paprika and a LOT of water. Considering paella is a dry rice dish, I was astounded by how much water we were adding to the pan.
While the paella was bubbling, Beni taught us a trick to ground the saffron using a piece of paper and a spoon. Although saffron looks red when you buy it, it turns yellow once it’s ground, which is how paella gets its yellow color. After adding in the saffron, a healthy dose of salt, and a piece of rosemary, we were told to abandon the paella for a bit to enjoy some snacks and drinks in the dining room. We were treated to some delicious clochinas (Valencian mussels) and Spanish tortilla.
Half an hour later, we were called back to our chef duties. It was now time to add the rice in! We parted the waters created a gap down the middle of the pan and added the rice in a thin line before mixing all the ingredients together. Basically, I realized that making a good paella is about 90% technique. Who would have guessed?
There was one final ingredient we added to the paella: caracoles, aka snails. If you’ve never had snails before, all you need to know is that they taste like whatever they’re seasoned with. These were pretty small and were for posterity more than flavor.
Remember when I told you there are rules to a perfect paella? Well, the main one is this: it must contain a socarrat, the toasted crispy rice found at the bottom of the pan. Without it, your paella gets an F #harshtruth. To achieve this, you turn the burner all the way up for about a minute or so and you say a chant: “paella, paella, sal buena, sal buena.” Translation: Paella, paella, come out good, come out good. Note: the chant must be done with enthusiasm.
Lastly comes the final countdown and voila! PAELLA.
After ALL of that, you have to wait for your paella to cool down so you can actually eat it, which brings me to the rules of cooking and eating paella:
- Paella is served warm, not hot.
- It should be eaten directly from the pan, not served on a plate.
- It is to be consumed during lunchtime ONLY. In Spain, lunch is the heaviest meal and dinner is for tapas and light food.
- It must be made for a minimum of two people. You won’t find a restaurant serving paella for one because who wants to put in ALL that effort for one person?
- It should not be fluorescent yellow. If it is, the cook used food coloring.
- It must contain a socarrat, the toasted crispy rice found at the bottom of the pan.
Although paella is Valencian, you can likely find a good one in other cities in Spain. However, if your paella is breaking any of the rules, you’re likely eating a touristy version. Individually portioned paella might have been made the same morning if you’re lucky, but to be on the safe side, bring a friend and order a fresh one.
By the way, our paella ended up being delicious! It was served with salad and wine, and we even received certificates at the end of the class. No two paellas are ever the same, but Beni concluded that paella is like sex – the more you practice, the better you get at it LOL.
Overall, I had an amazing experience at La Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana. It was light-hearted, fun, and informational – everything a good cooking class should be. As someone who has failed at paella-making several times, I can honestly say this class is a must-do activity in Valencia. A good paella is as much technique as it is good ingredients, and if you’re looking for an entertaining and educational class, then La Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana is where it’s at!
Book your spot here! Prices start at 50 euros.
Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana
Carrer dels Juristes, 12
Tell me: have you ever taken a cooking class abroad? What’s the best dish you learned to make? Share in the comments below!
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