Friends sometimes ask if we have a good paella recipe to share on the website. Nope! No way are we going to step into the slippery discourse of what makes a good paella. Valencianos already have it figured out and they defend their iconic dish with passion. Just look at what happened when British chef Jamie Oliver published a paella recipe with chorizo…Spaniards united against him. The only way we were going to tackle making paella was by going straight to the source at The Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana.
The School of Rice and Valencian Paella offers workshops twice daily (morning and afternoon) in their kitchen classrooms in El Carmen. You can choose to cook a traditional Paella Valenciana, Paella de Veduras (vegetarian), or Paella de Marisco (seafood). It’s designed to be a fun activity for novice cooks to experience a Valencian tradition, so we went with a group of friends.
The morning workshop starts at 10:00 am with a trip to the Mercado Central to purchase fresh ingredients. Our guide Pierrette led us through the streets of the Old Town to the mercado, where she explained that the stalls in the market have been passed down through generations of families. Our saffron came from La Parada de las Especias, a stall which owners Domingo and Sarah inherited from Domingo’s mother. It has been in their family since 1928.
There were once almost a thousand vendors with small food stalls in the market, but over the years they have been consolidated. We purchased our paprika from the smallest remaining stall in the market, Natividad Soler. For the Paella Valenciana, we needed smoked sweet paprika. Paella should be cooked over a wood fire, but we would be cooking ours indoors over a gas flame. The smoked paprika adds that touch of smoky flavor that we would otherwise be missing.
We made our way around the market purchasing vegetables, herbs, spices, and meat. At each vendor, Pierrette explained the products that we were buying and the reasons for including them. Valencian paella MUST include both chicken and rabbit for the right flavor. Snails, which were optional, add herbal notes to the paella from the wild rosemary and plants that they feed on in the fields.
For the seafood paella, we were surprised to learn that the beautiful shellfish that decorates the finished paella is really just that…decoration. The flavor of the seafood paella comes from the quality of fish and crabs that make up the stock. These are called pescado de roca, fish that live under the rocks, are sold at the fish stalls as an assortment of little crabs and white fish.
Back at the school, we donned our aprons and hats while our work stations were set up for us. We had signed up for the seafood paella, while our friends signed up for Valencian paella so that we could see how both were made. Chef Beni did an incredible job of keeping fourteen novice cooks in check. With Pierrette’s help translating, he demonstrated each step down to the details of how to prep the three different kinds of beans included in the Paella Valenciano.
Now, I’m not going to give away all of Chef Beni’s secrets for making paella (you’ll just have to visit for yourself!) but one of the most important pieces of information that we took away from the class was how to make the seafood stock. In a large stock pot, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and a ton of olive oil were sauteed into a base to which we added all of the miscellaneous white fish and crabs. We just dumped them in whole, guts and all.
Those “decorative” shellfish were sautéed first in the paella pan and set aside until the end. While we were glad to have learned how to create a rich seafood stock, we couldn’t help noticing that those around us making the Valencian paella were having more fun. While we were waiting for our stock to reduce, they were busy browning meat, sautéing beans, frying tomato puree, and creating their stocks directly in the paella pan.
After more than an hour of cooking, we were starving. Those delicious aromas really stimulated the appetite and our paella still had a long way to go. While our stocks were reducing and gaining flavor, we retreated to the dining room for a much needed snack. We sat down to a table of tortilla de patatas and big bowls of mussels with white wine.
Hunger satiated for the time being, we returned to the kitchen to finish up the paella. It still lacked the key ingredient—Bomba rice. Bomba is a special variety of short grain rice grown in Valencia. Determining the amount of rice requires experience, as there were no measuring cups or measuring spoons used in making our paella. It was all done by eye.
The pans are sized specifically to the number of servings. The liquid stock was allowed to cook down until there was about 1 inch left in the pan (or added to 1 inch for the seafood paella, since we made our stock separately). The rice was added in a straight line across the length of the pan. We relied on Chef Beni’s trained eye to determine the thickness of the line.
While the rice absorbed the broth, we joined hands and did a little dance around the cook top (never mind those bubbling pans and spewing gas flames just inches away) to traditional Valencian music. I don’t know if this is a necessary part of the ritual to get an authentic paella, but theres no need to take any chances. Dance away!
Paella is a dry rice dish. When the liquid was completely absorbed into the rice, we cranked up the heat to make sure all of the moisture was cooked out and to achieve the socarrat—that toasted caramelized crust on the bottom of the pan that is so special.
After the chef had given our paellas his approval, more than 2 hours after we started cooking, we carried them to the dining room to finally enjoy the fruits of our labor. We ate them the proper way with the pan placed in the middle of the table. Each person used a spoon to eat from their section directly from the pan. The plate in front of you is only for discarded bones and shells.
The paella was accompanied by a salad and plenty of white and red wine. When we finished stuffing ourselves full of rice, Chef Beni handed out certificates pronouncing us each a “Paella Specialist” entitled to spread “the authentic art of the original Paella Valenciana” among our family and friends.
Making paella is a great way to entertain and a perfect excuse for a party. Get a huge paella pan, build a small fire, and cook just about anywhere. There’s no need for measuring devices and the lengthy process gives everyone lots of time to mingle around the fire and drink wine. We have seen paella cooked on the beach, the sidewalk, in the streets, and in parking lots all over Valencia.
So I guess we need to get ourselves a paella pan and start spreading the word. These paella recipes can be found on the The Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana website. As far as you all know, these are the only recipes we will ever use.
And if some chorizo shows up in the pan, that will just be our little secret.
Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana
Calle Obispo Don Jerónimo 8 bajo – 46003
Tel.: +34 961 043 540