For the last three decades, Mary and I have searched for great paella, maybe even the best paella in the world. We believe we found it in Valencia – not surprising since this city is the birthplace of the famous rice dish. We may think we’re hopelessly biased about this since Mary and I made the paella. But yes, while we were in Valencia, we whipped up the tastiest seafood paella around. I must admit we had a little help from the great folks at Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana (the School of Rice and Paella Valencia). We were star students and even had diplomas to prove it.
The Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana was founded in 2014 to combine instruction in the fine art of paella making with cultural immersion that included buying the right ingredients and sharing the dish’s history and social significance. Students here cook, rather than watch a demonstration. They also get to enjoy great local wines after throughout the class. Over 10,000 alumni are now authentic paella ambassadors around the world.
We didn’t know what to expect or how many fellow students would join us as we arrived on a late fall morning at the school headquarters in the heart of the historic district. We thought we would be the first there, but found a long table full of paella chef wannabees eager to get started. Most were making a traditional Valencia paella with rabbit and chicken, while we, and another lucky student, would make a seafood version.
Our paella professors were the winning team of Elena, our translator and guide, and Pepe Fortea, our hilarious chef who didn’t speak much English but had us in stitches with his broad gestures and translated quips. Humor aside, the chef was passionate about teaching the Valencian way to make paella that he learned from legendary masters of the dish such as Oscar Torrijos, Victor Granero, Juan Gorrea, and Juan Carlos Galbis. (We didn’t know who they were, but were impressed anyway.)
The chef and most Valencians are very serious about their city’s great dish, named for the circular pan it’s cooked in. Paella’s humble beginnings were in the rice fields surrounding Valencia, and of course, it’s not the real deal unless you use that local rice, a round grain with a pearly color called Bomba. It absorbs twice the amount of the tasty stock as regular long-grain rice, so it has more flavor and doesn’t stick together.
The truth is there are many styles and ingredients in paella, depending on where you are in the world. But, in this city, it’s not authentic paella unless it includes rabbit, chicken, snails, white beans, and artichokes. We bucked tradition somewhat by making Paella de Mariscos, so popular it might be considered traditional by now. The other essential ingredient in all paellas is saffron, the expensive and fragrant spice that gives the rice its vibrant golden orange color.
We learned, surprisingly, that people in Spain enjoy their paella in the afternoon for lunch, a meal that can last two to five hours. With this heavy meal mid-day, tapas and lighter fare are stars of the evening. Only tourists, we were told, eat paella for dinner, likely in over-priced tourist traps.
Typically, the Spanish share paella with family and friends, eating it directly out of the pan with a wooden spoon and taking care to eat just their designated pie-shaped wedge. Never add chorizo or sausage or use chilies or hot sauce. Never stir the rice once it’s been spread evenly in the broth. And never, ever use English chef Jamie Oliver’s recipe for the dish – at least that’s what Chef Pepe said.
Before we entered the kitchen, Elena took us to grocery shopping in the grand historic market just a few blocks from the school. We visited about a half dozen little stalls purchasing beans, fish, shellfish and other seafood, rabbit, chicken, tomatoes, leeks, and saffron. Our shopping cart full, we made our way back to the school, donned our aprons and chef hats, and got down to cooking. We worked in groups of three or four behind our large paella station outfitted with a gas burner and large enameled paella pan (easier to clean than traditional carbon steel versions). The paella burner system provides steady, controlled heat so that the rice cooks evenly around the pan. Similar paella cooking station kits with burner and pan are around $200 on Amazon.
Chef Pepe instructed us on every step…and each of us had tasks like prepping onions and tomatoes or cleaning squid or sauteing rabbit. This is a hands-on class full of valuable tips like how to add the rice and check the seasonings. When the pans were bubbling with rice, broth, and meat (or shellfish), he took over so we could return to the dining table for appetizers, salad, and wine – it was thirst-making work over those hot burners!
After taking class photos with our creations, we dug into our finished masterpieces washed down with lots of excellent wine. Once everyone was stuffed and feeling happy, our graduation ceremony began with each couple or team receiving diplomas from the chef. No doubt, this was one of the most satisfying and fun experiences we had in Spain.