BARCELONA — One of the true joys of travel is to get to experience local cuisine. Having already filled ourselves on seafood a few times, we decided to get a real food experience by taking a paella class.
We arrived at a lovely open-concept kitchen off La Rambla, Barcelona’s busy shopping thoroughfare, a little late because I misread the start time. Fortunately, we were forgiven by our host and instructor, Carmen, and had only missed introductions — which was a shame but something for which we tried to make amends. There were 15 of us in the class, all from America (OK, technically I’m English but I live in Estados Unidos so I count).
Even if I had made introductions my memory for names is so bad I would never remember them anyway. There was a family from Oregon, a brother and sister from Salt Lake City (Her name was Frida. The best way for me to remember a name is to relate it to an artist and she was a fellow museum aficionado), some young people, including a couple of gentlemen who were next off to Pamplona to run with the bulls (at least they had a hardy last meal if things go awry).
Paulina was from San Diego, others were from San Francisco. It says something about the nature of a vacation that they were only briefly aware that a magnitude 6.4 earthquake had hit Southern California the day before.
We grabbed our aprons and found a station at the table which had cutting boards and knives for all, with ingredients all around. The young couple down far end were put on sangria duty, zesting lemons and cutting fruit, while opposite them another couple were beginning the Catalan Cream. I volunteered to clean some mussels, while others chopped veggies. As we worked, we chatted to each other with lots of “Where are you from?” and “How long have you been here?” and “Have you been to this or that place?”
There is something incredibly social about a large group cooking together. The only thing we had in common was clean hands but that was enough.
Many hands make light work and soon the raw materials for our paella were ready. Carmen pulled out a large round pan with a flat bottom — the actual paella for which the meal is named — perfect for the task (got to get one of those when I get home). A goodly amount of olive oil covered the bottom. Carmen, who runs the enterprise with her sister Angeles, told us it was virgin olive oil, made from the second pressing, as opposed to extra virgin, which is from the first pressing. Apparently, extra virgin cooks too fast and should be saved for salads, etc.
Carmen also had a double-ring propane-powered cooking ring that she lifted onto counter as one can’t cook paella on an electric stovetop (got to get one of those when I get home). Before the oil even began to bubble the onions were thrown in, shortly followed by chunks of chicken. A copious quantity of chopped veggies swiftly followed, before the rice was mixed in. Home-made chicken stock and pureed tomatoes, with a whole head of garlic, provided the liquids. Saffron, smoked paprika and Carmen’s “secret” (you won’t hear it from me. If you want to know, take the class), were stirred into the mix.
The assembled throng took turns at mixing and stirring, while sipping sangria and throwing out a nice mixture of insightful questions and funny comments. It was such an easy-going atmosphere about the only thing we didn’t do was dance around as we worked.
And oh, the smells. I was ready to eat but there was more. Ramona inserted the mussels around the edge of the paella. The mussels are alive when closed and they popped open as they heated up.
It was my job to add the enormous prawns in a circular pattern. Carmen put the first two in. I thought they were slightly off center, which meant my circle was slightly off, sending my OCD on tilt. But I resisted the urge to pull them all out and start again and nobody but me seemed to notice.
Finally, it was time to eat. We passed the plates around the table and we all eyed our plates impatiently as we waited for all the last platter to be laid. Then we ate. The rice held everything together and the ingredients blended perfectly for a sensual dance on my tongue. The mussels were perfection and the prawns were almost lobster-like in their flavor.
The room buzzed with conversation as strangers shared stories. We finished the experience by using a blow torch to carmelize the sugar on top of our Catalan Cream, which is like crème brulée, but better.
Best of all, we didn’t have to do the dishes.
The class drank the last of our sangria, shook hands with Carmen and went our separate ways down La Rambla, never to see each other again. But we were brothers in arms, for, as Shakespeare wrote, “he who cooks paella with me this day shall be my brother….” OK, maybe I am paraphrasing “Henry V,” but the class created a healthy camaraderie to accompany a wonderful meal.
When I get home all I just have to follow the recipe and it will be just as good as Carmen’s right? Right?
We booked Carmen and Angeles’ Top Paella, Sangria and Catalan Cream class through Airbnb, but details are also available at www.foodieexperiencebcn.com, or visit the sisters on their Instagram page @foodieexperiencebcn.