the day we learned about paella: a valencian cooking class

As we left the city behind us, travelling through small towns and villages where Spanish is rarely spoken, modern life quickly gave way to ripening orange trees and water-filled fields of rice, growing like weeds across a landscape that has changed very little in hundreds of years.

Mi Paella en el Huerto, Paella Cooking Class, Valencia, Spain

Modern machinery and electric pumps may now aid the ancient irrigation systems so unique to this region, but the crops remain the same.

Even to the casual observer, it is clear why Valencia is the home of paella.

In faded chalk and across restaurant flyers, this city invites all who cross its threshold to sample the area's most famous dish. Yet, as we are to learn, a restaurant is not where true Valencians choose to eat paella, nor just another dinner.

No, what is contained within this famous steel dish is speaks of much more than simply a meal to feed hunger, and there are traditions far older than us that lie behind every aspect of paella. The preparation, the cooking and, eventually, the eating is full of intricacies that a visitor cannot possibly be privy to without a teacher. What began as a simple one-pot farm workers dish, has evolved to become a celebration of family and friendship, a meal that lasts an entire day.

Mi Paella en el Huerto is a cooking class housed in a beautifully restored old farmhouse 25 minutes outside of the city. Run by Rafael, a true paella expert and and surrounded by fields of trees and a tangible citrus scent, it provides not only an idyllic backdrop but a real glimpse into the traditions of 'Dia de la Paella'. 

Truly then, where better to not only taste an authentic paella, but to learn to cook it?

Unfortunately for a cooking class, the making of a paella is not a team sport. Even amongst a room of Valencians, there is only one chef.

In fact, Rafael tells us that the quickest way to ruin a friendship is to share the cooking.

No, one person alone should be responsible for the paella. One person who knows just when a little more water is needed, at what point to add the rice and when the stock is ready. 

So, what do the rest do? With a grin, Rafael says, 'We drink'!

And so, over chilled classes of local white wine and tapas of sweet tomatoes, manchego cheese and ripe olives we learn a little more of Valencia's most famous dish.

The ingredients that make up a paella are not unusual or difficult to source (traditionally it should contain rabbit and chicken, easily found in the countryside), in fact, they are ingredients that we cook with on a weekly basis.

Rice, a variety of vegetables and the simplest of seasonings - a little garlic, salt, paprika and saffron.

What makes paella so special is time. 

In a world of fast food restaurants and 30-minute recipes, food is often little more than fuel. Yet, as we stood over a simmering pan, the aroma of a rich stock floating on a breeze we were happy to give this dish all the time in the world.

We have eaten a number of truly underwhelming paella dishes over the years, often amounting to little more than quick cook rice and vegetables or, as it turns out, completely inauthentic chorizo and prawn. Very rarely do you encounter that beautifully crisp, slightly (but deliciously!) burnt crust that is the mark of a well-made paella. It seems that most of us can't resist giving everything a good stir - a cardinal sin, Rafael points out, when we query why the rice remains untouched in the pan.

Several hours after we arrived at Mi Paella, Rafael announced that the paella dish was done. As we took our first mouthful with a spoon, eating straight from the pan, a smile crept across our faces. Years of experience, and generations of Valencian history had created a dish quite unlike anything we has tasted before. 

It was superb. A perfect paella in the most authentic of surroundings.

Elisabeth Luard (a renowned authority on authentic Spanish cooking) says of true paella, that it is a dish to be eaten outside, under the shade of a fig tree. After an afternoon with Mi Paella en el Huerto, we'll agree she's on to something.

Mi Paella en el Huerto

Morning and afternoon classes are possible, each lasting around 4 hours.

The farmhouse within which the class is held is located approximately 25-minutes outside of Valencia - if you don not have your own transport, Mi Paella can arrange pick-up from your hotel.

Although traditional paella is not vegetarian, it can be adapted for non-meat eaters (as it was for us).

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We were invited to be guests of Mi Paella en el Huerto, but as always, all opinions are our own.