While paella is eaten throughout Spain, Valencia on the eastern coast is widely acknowledged as the ancestral home of the spicy smoky, meat-filled rice dish that, when done right, makes a stunning centerpiece for a table surrounded by friends and family. And, in Valencia, there’s no better place to learn the ropes of paella making than at Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valencia.
The School of Rice and Paella in Valencia typically offers two paella classes per day, one in the morning/afternoon (10am) and one in the evening (6pm). Booking into either session guarantees you the opportunity to learn paella from a local master in a professional kitchen. But, because the Central Market closes at 3pm, the evening session does not include a market tour.
For the evening classes James, the chef/instructor, and Ivan (his assistant/translator) will have already purchased the chicken rabbit, paprika, saffron, beans, and other ingredients during the market tour included in the morning/afternoon class. Fortunately, we visited Valencia in early March, a week before Fallas (Valencia’s massive spring festival) and well before the start of the main tourist season, so we were able to book into a Monday morning/afternoon (10am to 2pm) tour, class, and meal.
Our five-person class was relatively small by this school’s standards. Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valencia actually has two teaching spaces (one at each of their working restaurants), so they can handle multiple classes, including groups of up to 20 or more. Happily our group was the perfect size to keep things lively, and offered a wide variety of questions, interests and abilities for James and Ivan to attend to, which they did with the grace and charm so often encountered throughout Valencia.
The day began with a brief meeting at one of the school’s two restaurants, followed by a short walk through the old city that included a few historical details and ended at the Central Market. Valencia’s renowned Central Market is an 8,160sqm indoor market occupied by 400 small traders and open Monday to Saturday from 7am to 3pm.
As we made our way through the market James and Ivan led us to their favorite providers and took the time to give advice about which cuts of meat to choose and how much to buy for each person so our paella would be filling, festively arranged, and fairly portioned. Once we’d filled our bags, and been given a demonstration of saffron’s ability to change from dry/brittle red threads into a soulful yellow liquid (and the costly harvesting process was explained), we left the market and walked a few blocks to the school’s newest cooking classroom.
When we arrived, and by the time we took a short break, each of our cooking stations (the cooking school version of student desks) had been equipped with a two-ring gas burner (ideal for the wide paella pans), an enamel-coated paella pan, an extra long-handled stainless steel paella paddle, a chef’s hat and apron (which we were encouraged to take home) and our ingredients neatly divided and portioned by chef Benito’s (James’ culinary partner) teaching assistants. Getting down to the basics, we were shown how to manipulate each of the gas rings, a critical skill needed to control the different parts of the massive paella pans.
As we were led through the process of browning meat, shelling beans, and cooking all of the vegetables we learned that Valencia’s climate has grown steadily warmer in recent years, resulting in much smaller beans and other ingredients. Then, once the shredded tomatoes had been sweated down and water and saffron added along with massive sprigs of rosemary, we retired to the dining room for 30 minutes of wine and tapas as the burners did the work of reducing the stock.
When we returned to our pans they’d begun to resemble something approaching paella color. We then learned the trick of adding just the right amount of rice in just the right way so that it distributes evenly throughout the pan.
Next our ingredients were carefully divided so everyone would get a fair portion. And, in the final moments we cranked up the heat for the perfect amount of time, creating socarrat, the heavenly scorched bottom crust associated with paella.
Then, we returned to our long family-style table, shared more bread, tapas, and wine, and waited for our paellas. The staff served each paella with great ceremony. And after a half day of shopping, sweating, and cooking together we celebrated each of our successes and marveled at the individual flavor, texture, and color of each paella. Ranging from bright yellow to ochre and nut born, each was unique and they were all quite good.
And, just when we were feeling full from the paella, tapas, salad, and wine, James and his team surprised us with a traditional Valencian desert and an award ceremony where we each received a paella diploma. We’d all had perhaps a bit too much food but felt we’d gotten more than we’d bargained for.
The wide open teaching space at Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valencia allowed us to observe each other, and effectively have five different samples of paella to watch. So, if (as I did) a student screws up the addition of his paprika he can watch other students do it properly. And, just as importantly (if not more), everyone can watch as the master paella chef shows how to solve any problems or rookie mistakes that arise.
The combination of the tour and class made this a “most of the day” event. But the pacing kept it from being overwhelming. And the nuances and complexities of paella are really best learned in an immersive environment like this, where hands on instruction can also be tailored to individual skill levels and interests.
So, if you find yourself in Valencia, and are dying to learn more about the Central Market or roll up your sleeves in the kitchen, Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valencia is a great way to gain an introduction to the old town part of the city, meet a few of the market stall holders, learn paella secrets from two masters of the craft, and enjoy a fabulous meal with other curious cooks.
Text and photos by Glenn D. Kaufmann
Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valencia
Carrer dels Juristes 12 – 46001 Valencia (Spain)
+34 963 153 856
Open Every day 11 AM – 8 PM
The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research, which led us to the following sources of information:
1. Personal Interviews and experiences