I think I’m finding my mojo and its all because of My First Paella in Valencia where I took a cooking class on how to make authentic Valencian paella. Life gets busy and sometimes we need to reset ourselves to bring back our sparkle. I decided to do a paella cooking course in Valencia. I had such a great day with Joel and José and his team at My First Paella
Here’s what I said on my Fresh Kitchen facebook page after retuning home “I met awesome people from around the world, we laughed, we learnt, we drank sangria and laughed some more. It was good for my soul, I had the best day, thank you José for sharing your passion with us. I learnt so much from watching and listening to you. What a generous and abundant human presence you have in your kitchen. Your space is filled with happiness and enthusiasm that filtered into each one of us. I will definitely try to recreate this in my kitchen at home but with the limited variety of the right rice and the traditional ingredients of Valencian Paella it’s going to be a challenge.
I give this cooking 🥘 class 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟”
My First Paella – Part 1
Inspired by my cooking lesson in Valencia with José at My First Paella
Back at home in South Africa…
We went out to buy my first paella yesterday. Paella means pan in Spanish. I was equipped with knowledge recently gleaned from my adventures in Valencia, the home and origin of paella 🥘. I felt frustrated at times back home in South Africa because I couldn’t pop down to the market and buy all the authentic ingredients along with the necessary cooking tools.
Living in our small coastal town off the east coast of South Africa is truly amazing. I often reflect on our fortunate existence slightly removed from the phrenetic pace of big city life and lights, but it can have its drawbacks. Traveling light means I can’t pack an authentic paella from Valencia. The slight concave shape of the carbon steel pan pitted and hammered to ensure where the heat concentrates and disperses and allows for even cooking. All the pans I saw, and there weren’t many to choose from here in East London, had flat bottoms. We settled on the 40cm Cadac paella. This is the perfect size for 2-4 people. This would be the one that we would probably get the most use out of as it could double up as a shakshuka pan too as well as a great pan to cook prawns on the braai and a whole fish. It was not a true paella but I wanted to make paella on the day.
Improvising and flexibility are key to cooking successfully. One can’t get hung up on trying for perfection and authenticity when these things are beyond your ability or budget to control. I seriously did want the giant 80cm hammered authentic paella 🥘 from Valencia. I seriously did want to cook my paella on on open flame like all paella’s were cooked in the open fields in Valencia long ago or at Casa Carmela but this is not practical for only Brian and I. The next best option was on my gas stove. How often are we going to eat paella was also a factor to consider.
I love rice! When I was growing up I would always hang around the kitchen at 5pm waiting to scrape the bottom of the rice pot before being washed. I loved the bits that stubbornly stuck to the bottom of the pot because the rice had been left on a tad too long when all the water had evaporated. These bits were golden and crispy crunchy and left the pot looking pitted once I managed, determinedly to scrape them off the bottom. I have learned now there is a word for this when making paella. It’s called socarrat! Any true Valencian knows there is an art to getting it just right, the balance of golden and crispy before it burns. It’s delicious and it’s the mark of a good paella.
The next most important ingredient is the rice. Paella is Spanish and they grow a very specific rice for their paella. Now this is where I do get “hung up” on details. I know we don’t have this rice here at home in East London. I decided to bring 1kg home with me. I didn’t want to practice my paella with this good rice, I needed to find a substitute not only for this attempt but for future attempts too. I did a little digging into types of rice from around the world. I had also asked José if arborio rice would work and he vehemently said “noh!!!!!” “it is too steeky” this is not a good substitute.
Rice is grown from grass. There are 2 types of rice, Japonica and Indica. Japonica has a high amylopectin content which makes it sticky and indica has a low amylopectin content which has a drier texture once cooked. Paella uses the indica variety but what makes it confusing is that the grain is short and round just like arborio rice from Italy which is perfect for creamy risotto but not for paella. When someone tells you to use arborio rice as a substitute ask them if they have used it in their paella. I’ll bet you they have not.
Sushi rice, Japanese rice, arborio rice, carnaroli rice, sticky/glutinous rice are all from the Japonica rice family and are less widely consumed. They are a medium to short grain in length. See why I was confused about using Arborio as a substitute. Regions that produce japonica rice are Japan, Italy and across asia. USA produce Carolina Gold.
The indica rice family are often long-grained and NOT sticky. India produces basmati, Thailand produces jasmine and Spain produces calasparra, bomba, senia and albafura. Their ratio of water to rice varies, some 6:1 down to 2:1. Our good old tastic rice is 2 cups water : 1 cup rice. I spotted Bonnet rice on the shelves and decided this would be my practice rice. The bag I brought back with me from Spain was bomba rice which can absorb 3 times as much liquid. This is important for absorbing the flavours of the safron, nõra peppers, smoked sweet paprika and all the other flavours that go into making paella. Bonnet rice will have to do. I’m happy to report it held up very well as a good substitute for the bomba rice. So when I run out of bomba rice I will readily use bonnet rice from Tastic. It’s classed as an all purpose rice medium to long grained. It also has a neutral flavour unlike jasmine and basmati rice.
Now that I had my paella and my rice I was ready to get cracking on my Valencian Paella. The only problem is rabbit and snails 🐌. These are what go into an authentic Valencian paella. I doubled up on the chicken instead. Remember what I said about improvising and flexibility.
Part 2 to follow soon…
My First Paella – Part 2
On the morning of my first cooking lesson overseas, I woke up besides myself with excitement but also a bit nervous at meeting new people and being in a strange environment without Brian. I wondered what to wear? I felt my clothes would speak a little about me before I could. I decided on a long sleeve leopard print shift dress. I wanted South Africa 🇿🇦to be represented here in Spain🇪🇸. I decided on my black and gold tassel Spanish earrings as a nod to my hosts. I was getting into the right headspace in preparation for my day ahead. I was also trying to keep my anxiety quiet. She always shows up a little too exuberantly when I feel less than confident about my choices in life. I did have a little talking to myself on our walk from our apartment to the designated meeting spot. “ You’ve got this Jax, people like you when they get to know you, just be your natural self and everything will be okay”
Fortified with higher wisdom from a greater being, I decided to wear confidence with pride. I decided it looked good on me today especially coupled with my leopard print dress and Spanish earnings. Another tip to keep my anxiety under check is to give myself plenty of time. We arrived 25 min early and decided on a cortado at a nearby café. Here I had a perfect view of the meeting spot where I could see when people started to arrive. I spotted a young man all in black set apart from the Parroquia San Valero (Parish San Valero), where we were to meet. He was hurriedly and deeply drawing on a cigarette and checking his phone. I pegged him for the My First Paella meet-n-greet guy. It was still early and there was maybe one or two people milling around the entrance of the parish trying to look like they had a purpose to be there. We’ve all been there and the awkwardness of it is universal for all of us I’m sure. I left Brian at the café table and approached Mr Meet’nGreet. I recognised the logo on his golf shirt, so I immediately introduced myself as Jax here for the paella cooking course. He introduced himself as Joel. I told him I was enjoying a coffee with my husband and he said no problem there is still time to do so. More and more people started to arrive, so I kissed Brian goodbye and joined the group at the parish.
We were joined by José, who was to be our instructor for the day and were whisked off to the Ruzafa market to get our fresh ingredients for our authentic Valencia paella. I was absorbed in the moment and enjoying the smells, sounds and sights hitting my senses. He introduced us to each stall holder and explained that you can’t buy a stall at the market, you inherit the stall from your family. There were some stalls that were fourth generation stall holders. I found this fascinating. In a world as fickle as ours, it was soothing to witness this type of continuity. Although this market is not the oldest in Valencia, it is mostly supported by the locals with a sprinkling of a few tourists like ourselves. It was completed in 1957 and is known as the new market as apposed to the Mercado Central built from 1914-1928. This is also a stunning market and definitely worth a visit. Brian and I enjoyed pork cheeks (carrilleras) there at Richard Camarena Central Bar along with their version of a white sangria cocktail. It was outstanding. If you have never visited a food market in Europe, this is a treat for any foodie. It can be overwhelming but it is definitely a fantastic experience. What I really appreciated about this visit with José is that he pointed out things that I would never have discovered on my own because of the language barrier. Previously I had seen this big, ugly, gnarly looking tomato. It wasn’t ripe looking and it just didn’t “appeal” to me. José picked this heirloom tomato out for us and told us it is the best eating tomato in Valencia. It has an orange rather than red tinge when fully ripened and I mistakenly judged it as unripe. We enjoyed these delicious tomatoes for the rest of the time we were in Spain. He also told us about the seasonal Valencian mussels known as clochina de Valencia. We went on to meet a butcher responsible for a really great chorizo. It was packed and ready to go for our tasting. We were told by José that eating in the market wasn’t allowed so we had to wait until we could meet on the pavement outside the market to enjoy our treat. We moved through the stalls picking up our ingredients and watched and listened as José greeted and joked and had a typical chat with the individuals he’s come to know on a daily basis over his lifetime. A familiarity so comforting and warm that takes a lifetime to form. I looked up and spotted Brian on the periphery, a slight and respectable distance away from our group. He broadened his smile as our eyes met and with a wink of his eye, I felt safe and secure. He has this amazing ability to anchor me in my freedom. I know this sounds like an antithesis, but it’s in that very anchored connection I am free.
We wended our way along the cobblestone streets to our cooking class kitchen. Excitement was exchanged in the energy of everyone. Expectations were brimming over but more so was my reality of finding myself in Valencia about to cook my first authentic Valencian paella.
My First Paella – Part 3
Inspired by my cooking lesson in Valencia with José My First Paella
My heart was galloping along with anticipation as the door to our kitchen opened before us. There was a lot of chatter as we tried to orientate ourselves. The housekeeping was done with regards to apron-ing up, toilets and water. I put on an apron and it was a bit big and bulky for me. I had to put my bag away in the small cubes provided. I needed my phone with me to document my experience and I needed my glasses too to see exactly what was going on around me. When I’m excited-nervous my ears don’t work so well. I have to actively slow things down to absorb what’s going on around me. I felt a little flustered as I decided to go back to the wall where the aprons were hanging to exchange my big one for a smaller version with a handy pocket. It resembled the ones I had made for my own personal use in my own kitchen. The little front marsupial pouch is essential for my phone and glasses. It frees up my hands to cook and I’m not flapping about constantly searching for where I may have left them. This is a real thing since I hit my autumn years, I also like to call them my late summer ones 😜.
There was a little table off to the side of the main kitchen preparation area that had jugs filled with fruit and ice. Joel was talking about how to prepare sangria, I caught bits of it with my ears that were still not in full working order. He muddled the fruit and ice as he poured in the wine 🍷 and something else. I really can’t remember! I think it was orange juice, of course it was, we are in Valencia where they grow magnificent oranges 🍊 He asked us questions and along the way rewarded the correct answer with an extra glass of sangria. It was delicious and refreshing and decidedly too easy to quaff. I made a mental joke not to answer all the questions 😜😂.
We splintered off into our two cooking groups, one was the authentic Valencian Paella and the other group was the seafood group combined with the vegetarian group. Before us were tapas arranged in small plates and bowls we were invited to sample. The delicious and delicate taste of the clochina’s filled my mouth and sent messages to my brain to release a splash of dopamine into my veins. At the same time I’m trying to hold small bite size conversations with my group of new foodie friends and take photos to ensure the moment is captured for future viewing pleasure and to transport me back in time, like now while I’m writing about it . This moment only exist now, if I’m not fully immersed in it, I will not be able to remember it in the future. Having my phone with the photos is a handy trigger to nudge the memories alive again. At this point I hadn’t quite got my process worked out. I was a bit shy to start taking photos of everything I wanted to put into my mouth. I was still navigating the newness of my situation. In addition to the amazing clochina’s, were Spanish olives, Iberico ham, manchego cheese, and patatas bravas (brave potatoes). Everywhere you go from Barcelona to Valencia , you will find iterations of these brave paprika potatoes. Every place you eat them in, is proud of their version of them. Here in my first My First Paella kitchen was no different. The sangria’s were refilled and I cautioned myself to sip slowly as I continued to wend my way through the rest of my journey.
Let me introduce my group of foodies, there was Mick and Jo from Australia 🇦🇺 . When South African’s 🇿🇦and Aussies meet, there seems to me an invisible thread of connection that fast tracks and immediately leapfrogs over any social catchups. BAM! You become instant friends, it’s easy, relaxed and familiar. We recognize each other in each other. It’s a tribe we know we could belong to because of our sun, our accents, our sport, our culture all run along the same hemisphere. Jo and Mick are also in their late summer years acting like teenagers again. Free from family responsibilities and a little more economically flexible and active, dipping into their hard earned income from prior years of sensibility, they have travelled the length and breadth of Spain 🇪🇸 packing in as much as possible to their memory banks. Their stash was bulging at the seams as they generously shared snippets of their phenomenal experiences so far. What lovely, warm and friendly people they are.
Next, were a young couple from Germany 🇩🇪 Mel and Jan. In their early thirties I’d peg them in their late Spring, if I’m to get away with being in my late summer. A little quieter and more reserved I gently pried open their personalities to discover they too are lovely people to be around. My instant connection to them is the fact they are German. I grew up loving Germany because my Dad worked for Mercedes Benz in East London. They kept our economic lights on in my little town and in my home too for a while. One of my very good friends who I’ve known for the past 23 years, is my neighbour, our children shared lifts to school and clothes at the weekends, is also German. Bam! Another instant connection. They are both on a very successful career trajectory which puts them in a pressure cauldron. It was time to tap off a little steam and what better way to do so than on a paella cooking course in the land of paella cooking classes. I felt a bit maternal towards them.
The last two lovelies in our group were Anna and Maria. They are Valencian and I couldn’t peg them in their summer, autumn or winter years, because they are timeless. We used sign language mostly to communicate and I had to ask José what they were saying when I really wanted to hear why he was so interested in their contributions to our class. I didn’t want to miss out on any tips they were happy to share with him. I was curious about why they were in the class to begin with. I knew they could cook their own paella, they are Valencian. It’s ingrained in their DNA. There must be golden threads of saffron running through their veins from early childhood. Maria and Anna are good friends, they looked out for each other in the marketplace. One of them disappeared to chat with a stall holder, I think. When it was time to leave, I automatically did a head count of my people and one of the Valencian Ladies was missing. The other, unperturbed knew exactly where she was and gathered her back into our group as we left the market. The joy and comfort of lifelong friendships look like this. I have these friendships too, so it’s easy to recognize. They are a wellspring of eternal happiness that I drink from every day even when they are not around me physically. Maria and Anna were no different from me in search for the best way to make paella. I knew instantly by their presence that I was definitely in the best class to learn about my first paella 🥘
All of them, I’d welcome in my home any day!!!
Can you see the journey I’m on here? Can you feel it, hear it, touch it??? I promise you in the next part hopefully you’ll get to taste it too!
Part 4 to follow shortly or long-ly