Paella with a Pinch

Moments away from packing our bags and heading home to Australia, we first needed to fulfill a promise made in Rome over two years ago, to meet our dear friends in the south of Spain. Airbnb provided a super little nest among the tiled rooftops of the old town, the glorious dome of a nearby church clearly visible from our balcony, the walls around us laced in bougainvillea. Yet there was no time to stop and ponder the philosophies of life in our little eyrie. We were booked into a cooking class across the river and although it didn’t start till 9.30 am, that is still dawn in Spanish terms.

On the west side of the Gudalquivir is Triana, an attractive and ancient quarter of Seville that once thronged with fishmongers and carpenters. Today, it is bursting at the seams with ceramic shops and tapas bars. We wandered over Puenta de Isabella II – or Puenta Triana, whichever you prefer – to the Mercado de Triana, that was built over the remains of Castillo Santo Jorge, a medieval fortress that was also used as the headquarters and prison for the Spanish Inquisition. It was demolished in the 19th century, but some of its walls and cobblestones have been excavated since, and can be seen below the floor of the market, where there is a museum that focuses on the history of the castle, including three centuries of religious repression in Spain.

Once an intermittent open-air market where fishermen sold their wares fresh from the river, it is now a permanent, roofed structure with a plethora of stalls brimming with fish and pork, fruit and vegetables, coffee and a cooking school: Taller Andaluz de Cocina. We meet up with our guide, Clara, as the market opens on a bright and sunny Saturday morning. Joining a multi-national group of wannabe chefs, we follow, meek as lambs, as Clara takes us past the Pescados y Mariacos, the Charcuteria, and the Semilleria. At a Frutus Y Verdurus, I am thrilled to find a colourful display of fruit we haven’t tasted since we left Manila – custard apples, pineapples, pomegranates – as well as local oranges, bitter and perfect for marmalade, whose scented trees line many of the city streets. A round, yellow melon – the galia – is apparently hugely popular with the locals, although not particularly flavourful, Clara admits. We admire the purple skinned Spanish garlic, so much stronger and sweeter than the white, Chinese variety. And we learn that Spain produces 45% of the world’s olive oil. (Next week, our friends will travel by car to Granada, passing through mile upon mile of olive orchards that feed this significant industry.) At a fish stall, we pondered how best to cook cuttlefish and dogfish, sea snails and obas, or cuttlefish roe. Any thoughts?

We are introduced to Queso Payoyo, a local goat’s cheese from the Andalusian mountains, as well as the more familiar and firmer Manchego, made from sheep’s milk. Clara tells us all about the free-range black pigs fed on ten kilograms acorns per day in order to produce the perfect Iberian ham: pata negra or Jamón ibérico de Bellota in Spanish. Salted and hung out to air dry for anything from 12 – 48 months. Last year, my sister and I stayed in the remote town of Jabugo, which is almost entirely devoted to the production of Jamón ibérico. Here, vast, silent hangars house the famous pork shoulders that have been popular since Roman times. The specific appellations are distinctions that will be strictly adhered to and protected by the region and the EU.

At the Semilleria, there are open sacks of dried beans and lentils, and tiny boxes of saffron, which sell for 5,000 euros per kilo. Back in the kitchen, we will learn that saffron must always be the final touch to a dish, possibly roasted in tin foil, but never fried. I consider whether any of my friends will notice if I use a pinch of smoked paprika for a similar effect at a fraction of the price…

Saffron is one of the most precious spices in the world: the golden nugget in a purse of copper coins. It is even nicknamed ‘red gold,’ although it turns a dish yellow when added to the cooking pot. The Ancient Greeks used it in perfume, the Chinese found it medicinal, the Indians like it to dye their fabrics that distinctive marigold colour. Saffron is incredibly labour-intensive, which is what makes it so expensive: the red stigmas are hand-picked from the purple flower of the Crocus Sativa, and it takes thousands of stigmata to make a pound of saffron. About ninety five percent of the world’s saffron comes from Iran. With its aromatic, vaguely floral flavour, it is so intense you only need to toss a pinch into the cooking pot for that distinctive je ne sais quoi

Once the food stalls have been fully explored, we return to the cooking school to start our class. Clara swiftly hands over the reins to her partner, Victor, and dons an apron to become both sous-chef and chief bottle-washer, while Chef Victor explains the four-course menu and how we will all take a hand in preparing it.

Our first recipe originated in Cordoba. Quick and easy to make, Salmorejo is a salmon pink emulsion of tomato, bread and enough olive oil to make the average American decidedly nervous. We are soon chanting, ‘more, more, more’ like a pantomime crowd until the tomato puree has turned into an orange cream. Chilled for a couple of hours, it will then be garnished with hard-boiled egg and diced jamon. Salmojero is a rich and creamy soup, served cold, like gazpacho. Much to my surprise, Victor then explains that traditionally, gazpacho is not really a soup, but a Sevillian summer drink served from the fridge like water.

Next, we toss together a vegetarian dish of garbanzos (chickpeas) and spinach that contains enough cumin – ‘a Spanish pinch’ – to make it taste more Moroccan than Spanish, and uses fried bread and garlic as a thickener.

Clara then presents us with pitchers of cold Sangria, that fresh summer party drink concocted from Tempranillo and orange and lemon soda, then garnished with diced fruits and a cinnamon stick like a southern Pimms. Its name is believed to come from the Spanish word for blood: sangre. I am a little wary of alcohol this early in the day, but it certainly helps to enliven the culinary experience.

Suitably lubricated, we move on to the pièce de résistance – is there a Spanish word for that? – paella. Traditionally, paella is the pan, not the dish. Nor is it the seafood concoction the world is used to, but a country dish of rice, rabbit and chicken, runner beans, butter beans and artichokes in season. Originating in Valencia, it was made for the fieldworkers from whatever ingredients came to hand, which could include snails and duck. And according to our expert chef, it must not contain chorizo, however strong the temptation, as it will overpower the delicate flavour of the saffron and make the dish too greasy.

Although born in the north and bred in England, Victor is fierce about the honour of his Paella Balenciana. It must be fresh and simple, laced with garlic, paprika and a Spanish pinch of saffron. Simple ingredients maybe – but it requires practice to perfect a paella. Measurements and timing must be exact, to the last grain of rice and the moment to remove the pan from the heat. As he demonstrates how to fillet the chicken with a knife so sharp it cuts through the bird like butter, Chef cautions us to stay away from restaurant paella. It’s not the real deal, he claims scathingly, and is often a defrosted, reheated mockery of the traditional paella. Chef uses only the red meat for the paella, putting the breasts aside to use in another dish. All the other discarded parts then go into the pan to make the stock. To qualify as a true-blue paella, he says, as he neatly arranges the ingredients around the edge of the pan, it should be cooked on a charcoal fire made from orange trees. Most importantly, he declares, one must never stir the rice once all the ingredients have been added and evenly spread across the flat-bottomed paella. And he sternly warns us to hide the wooden spoon from any officious helpers. Meanwhile he tosses in a Spanish pinch of salt that looks like a tablespoon’s worth to the rest of us.

We are shown that the paella pan has handles held on with rivets, which cleverly help to quantify the amount of stock and rice. Once the ingredients have all been added, the heat is turned up for five minutes, then turned down for a further 12 minutes.

As the wine is poured and the paella served up, our mouths are watering eagerly, and all is silent for several minutes as we tuck in. After the plates are all but licked clean, Clara presents each of us with a champagne sorbet made from lemon sorbet and cava with a final Spanish pinch of mint. It’s a lovely, light palate cleanser to complete the meal. Our late lunch (it is now 3pm) has been a very jolly, utterly delicious affair. ¡Viva!

*With thanks to Sarah & Ian for sharing their photos… and their holiday!

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