This piece was contributed by Lorenzo Manuali, A Special Contributor to Galavante
An authentic private market tour and cooking class? In Barcelona? Of course my answer was, “Sign me up!” Hence began my culinary experience in Spain with my go-to travel companions and Chef Joshua of the Barcelona Paella Experience. For an afternoon, our task was to make a traditional paella at this Barcelona cooking class. It’s an art to get the right combination of crispy, caramelized rice at the bottom. The caramelized rice is actually an art known as socarrat. It’s a challenge to get the socarrat plus that luscious, creamy texture throughout. It was my mission though, to learn the best paella recipe, because why not? I’m in Barcelona, after all, so it only makes sense to have a Barcelona Paella Experience.
There are many Barcelona cooking classes. We wanted to keep this one real and also not blow a crazy amount of money. In the case of the Barcelona Paella Experience, this was absolutely possible. With Chef Joshua, one can achieve an optimal experience from start to finish at a reasonable price.
Ingredients are Everything
Barcelona is known for its marketplaces, which serve some of Spain’s highest-quality products. Jamón Ibérico, pata negra from Salamanca and marinated Andalusian olives are just the tip of the iceberg. For any Barcelona cooking class, a stop at a market to pick up ingredients is a must. By far the most famous market in Barcelona is La Boqueria. While it’s certainly a must-see attraction, it’s designed for tourists. So it’s refreshing that Chef Joshua takes his guests to Mercado del Ninot. This is a market in the Eixample district of Barcelona, mainly frequented by nearby residents. Here, one shops like one of the many locals at the market. You make small talk with other shoppers and crack jokes with vendors, which already made it an authentic experience.
A Tour of the Market
Chef Joshua constructed a market tour with something in mind for everyone. Foodies — of course — get to sample, sample, and sample amazing products. Spoils from the market tour include a variety of marinated olives that pack punches, from deliciously briny to zestily spicy. For history buffs, Chef Joshua recounts the fascinating origin story and development of Mercado del Ninot. This includes taking in the architecture and intricacies of its building. With knowledge only a resident steeped in Barcelonan culture would have, Chef Joshua takes on the role of an erudite friend. He doesn’t overly pepper with factoids, and occasionally tells stories that entertain while edifying. This was one of the aspects I liked most, about this Barcelona cooking class.
I didn’t feel like a tourist, but rather a local who happened to be stopping by to pick up some groceries. In short, the tour was masterfully conducted — and left me wanting more.
The Scene to Create the Best Paella Recipe
I especially liked the authentic setting of a real home for this Barcelona cooking class. The apartment where Chef Joshua hosts the Barcelona Paella Experience is located in one of the stunning modernist buildings. Barcelona is famous for this style, the most famous of which are by Gaudí. The ambience reminded me of a brownstone in New York City’s Upper West Side, just more European. The building had ornate metalwork decoration on the windows, a large vestibule, and handcrafted doors, among other interesting design aspects. You are immediately take one back to the late 19th century. This is a time when the Eixample district was the epitome of all that was new in Barcelona.
A Cozy Place to Cook
In the apartment, the first thing I noticed was the exquisitely designed hydraulic tiles on the floor. The kitchen is cozy — just large enough not to feel cramped. The authentic setting was special and unique with this Barcelona cooking class. Yet, it’s intimate enough to encourage conversation. We first made a traditional sangria. It’s pretty easy work, which mostly consists of cutting up fruit and letting the flavors diffuse. Then Chef Joshua began the main event: the meat and vegetable paella recipes.
As someone who is more experienced behind a stove, I expected the paella recipe to be more interesting for my three friends. I pleasantly was proven wrong. Chef Joshua guided us through paella recipe expert basics. This included basic skills like making a tomatillo sauce and deglazing a pan. He also taught us how to cook rabbit and other types of meat correctly, and how to clean artichokes.
Now back to the core of a good paella recipe. Chef Joshua taught us techniques for properly shaking the paella to achieve just the right amount of crispy, browned rice on the bottom of the pan. This is the real skill for making a killer paella recipe. These valuable techniques can be applied beyond a paella recipe, too. A good tomatillo sauce, for example, is always a win at the dinner table. Even those with advanced culinary knowledge will enjoy making something as beautifully complex as a paella recipe, together with others. While cooking, we sipped on our delicately sweet yet alcoholically piquant sangria.
The Best Part of it All
While a paella recipe is useful, at the end of the day, it’s about eating your meal. As we sat down to dinner, the paella was hot, steaming, and bursting with flavor. The rice from the bottom of the pan hit my palette first. I still remember an explosion of smoky, peppery, and browned nutty notes. Then there was an elegant crunch to add just the right amount of texture. It set off a firework show on my tongue. With each subsequent bite, the rice was purely soft and lathered in the roasted tomatillo. The rabbit almost flaked apart as if braised, and all I wanted was to take another bite. But before I did, as my mouth grew accustomed to the flavors, the saffron came up from behind. It added a flowery aroma to an already raging symphony of taste. Oh — and the artichoke hearts — don’t even get me started on those.
My one (albeit small) criticism comes with the preparation of the dessert, crema catalana. Don’t get me wrong, it was the perfect level of creamy and springy. And furthermore, it wasn’t overly sweet — which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to brûléed desserts. It was perfect, in fact.
My issue lies with who does the preparing. Chef Joshua’s guests only blowtorch sugar on the crema catalana, which he makes beforehand. Though of course I must admit blowtorching is always fun (particularly after a glass or two of sangria). However it didn’t seem to match the educational nature of the rest of the experience.
Crema catalana needs time to set, so I understand the timing difficulties in involving guests in the whole process. That being said, there are many other Catalonian desserts — think leche frita or pastisset — that could allow for real participation. Of course either way it ends the experience on a sweet and local note. Despite the slight asymmetry, the eggy goodness of a freshly brûléed crema catalana was cozy and heartwarming. It was the end to an experience that neither my friends nor I will ever forget.
You can find Chef Joshua’s recipes for paella and booking information on the Barcelona Paella Experience website.
More by Lorenzo Manuali