‘That’s not real paella.’ I’ve heard this so many times! But what does this actually mean? What is ‘real’ paella?
We all think we know what it is, right? But do we? Having grown up in Spain, I always thought I knew, but how wrong I was!
Paella is one of Spain’s national dishes, or so we are led to believe. The actual fact is that it comes exclusively from Valencia, in the Mediterranean coast. But it has become so popular that it has been adopted across Spain, and also the world, as the typical Spanish dish par excellence.
There is so much pride surrounding Valencian paella that local people campaigned for months to get a paella emoji. And guess what…? They got it! (Yes, go and check your phone… it’s there!)
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So what is real paella?
After repeatedly hearing about the outrage that Valencians feel about us, non-locals, calling certain yellow rice dishes paella, I just had to find out what the real thing actually looks like.
I decided to join the Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana on one of their workshops, specifically the Valencian Paella workshop.
I had the option to attend either the morning workshop starting at 10am or the evening one at 6pm. I chose the morning one because it included a little bonus that I was very interested in – a shopping trip to the Mercado Central (Central Market) to purchase the fresh ingredients that I would be using. As the market closes early afternoon, the evening session does not include this.
A trip to the market
When I arrived at the school, I met Pierrette, who gathered all of us, the ‘students’, and took us to the market.
The Mercado Central is said to be one of the most beautiful market stalls in Europe, and as soon as you walk inside you can see why. It is housed in a Modernist iron building from the 1920s, inspired by the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris. It is referred to as a ‘Cathedral for the senses’, due to the rich smells, colours and flavours you can find within it, but also because of its intricate dome. It sells mostly Spanish produce, and one curiosity about it is that all the stalls are family owned and passed on to the next generation. However, if someone does not have anyone to pass their stall to, they will pass it on to their neighbour stall, which is why they are all different sizes.
Learning about the ingredients
Our first stop in the market was the vegetable stall, where we purchased four different kinds of beans, all of which go into the paella. We bought broad green beans called bajoqueta, garrofó (lima beans), long white beans called tavella and long red beans called rojet. We also bought tomatoes of the pear variety, as they are fleshier and not as watery as other types.
Once we had the vegetables, we went to the spice stall to purchase saffron and smoked paprika. The best varieties of these spices come from the Spanish region of Extremadura, on the border with Portugal, and they are what give paella its yellow colour and its slightly smoky flavour.
We then went to purchase the meat – chicken and rabbit, always on the bone for more flavour. Nothing else. Well, some people may add artichokes in winter, which is the artichoke season, and snails. But that’s pretty much it when it comes to fresh ingredients for paella. No chorizo, no seafood, no peppers… that is it.
Of course, you also have rice as the main ingredient, but we didn’t buy this at the market, as we already had some back at the school.
VALENCIA FOOD TOUR – TAPAS, TREATS AND TIGER NUTS
The making of a Valencian Paella
Once we returned to the Escuela, we put our aprons and chef hats on (which we got to keep) and our teacher, Jaime, explained that paella is both the name of the dish and the pan that is used to cook the dish in. Also that paella must always be cooked in a paella, as any other type of pan doesn’t produce the same result.
So after we’re clear on what all the ingredients and tools are, we add some oil to the paella and once hot, we add the chicken first and the rabbit a few minutes later, and cook until they are sealed and golden all around.
While the meat cooks, we prepare the beans. We snap with our hands the bajoqueta and the rojet beans in medium pieces. Snapping is preferred as it breaks the fibre and it helps the cooking process. For the garrofó and the tavella beans, we only eat the inside, so we peel them and discard the pods. We also grate the tomatoes and discard the skins and any excess water.
Once the meat is completely sealed, we push it towards the edge of the paella and add the bajoqueta and rojet beans and turn them continuously for a few minutes until they are caramelised. We then push them towards the edge of the paella with the chicken. We repeat this process with the garrofó and tavella beans. We then add the grated tomatoes and cook them while stirring. When the liquid has reduced, we take the meat and the beans, mix it well with the tomato and make a mound in the middle of the paella.
This is when we add the smoked paprika and mix well. Ideally paella would be cooked on the a wood fire, but as this is not always practical, smoked paprika is used to get that wood fire flavour.
We then add enough water so it’s about 1 cm from the rim of the paella, and add a good pinch of saffron, which we have previously turned into power. Add a few pinches of salt, and a long sprig of rosemary that will infuse for 10 mins, and let it simmer.
EXCITING THINGS TO DO IN VALENCIA
Then came my favourite part of the day. While the paella simmered, we all had a chance to catch our breath and enjoy a nice chat with a lovely glass of wine, an aperitivo. We were working hard after all, and it was welcome and very well deserved.
After a nice break, we were called back to the kitchen to add the rice. The best type of rice for paella is bomba rice, a round-grained variety grown in the Albufera area, outside Valencia city. But other round rice varieties can be used too.
After only a few minutes, the paella seems ready… but there is still one more thing to do. We need to make the socarrat, the toasted bit of rice at the bottom of the paella – in my opinion (and a lot of people’s) the best part of it. At this point everyone in the class is starting to get super excited about enjoying the fruits of our labour. And it was really worth the wait. We all got to eat our own paella, and to try everyone else’s. It was really interesting to see that even though we all followed the same instructions, every paella tasted slightly different.
After a tasting session from the chefs, we received our compliments and further advice, and we were presented with certificates that now qualify us to make Valencian paella for friends and family, and a wooden spoon to take home.
Practical information: You can book this workshop yourself and learn to cook the real Valencian paella with Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana. If you do go ahead and book this workshop, say hello to Jaime from me!
So tell me: Have you ever done a cooking workshop while travelling?
What was it like? Let me know in the comments!
Some of my favourite Spanish cookbooks
Book accommodation in Valencia
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Disclosure: A big thank you to Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana, who hosted me on this experience. As always, all views are my own.
Teresa is an award-winning travel blogger based in London. She’s on a mission to explore the world through responsible cultural and adventure travel, and through deeper, more meaningful local experiences. She’s a lover of adventure, the outdoors and everything food related, and she’s always looking for ways to make a positive impact through sustainable travel.