Craig came up with the idea to find a cooking class to attend while we were in Barcelona, and my job was to do the research. While in my mind I had visions of avant-garde cooking – à la Ferran and Albert Adria, with foams, spherification, and other culinary magic tricks – the only classes I could find focused on more traditional fare. Once I accepted the fact that I was going to make paella and not spherified olives, I set about to find the best company to take the class from and I finally decided on Barcelona Cooking.
Hunger is the best spice.
Don’t get me wrong – I love paella. My hesitation wasn’t just that paella is a traditional dish, but that it’s not a traditional dish of Barcelona. Paella actually originated in Valencia in the mid-19th century, and authentic paella consists of white rice, green beans, meat (rabbit, chicken, duck, and snails), and seasonings, such as saffron. The coastal regions of Valencia replaced the meat with fish and shellfish, but purists would say even that is not authentic. The word “paella” actually refers to the large, shallow pans the dish is cooked and served in and not the dish itself.
But this is just the backstory. The actual class was a lot of fun and the food was quite good. There was a group of nine of us encompassing a wide range of ages and hailing mostly from different regions in the US, but there was also a couple from Greece. We all gathered in the modern, open kitchen that looked out over Las Ramblas with our chef, Stefano Marcellini, who hails from Italy but considers Barcelona his home. He quickly went through the menu we would be preparing and all the steps for each dish so we would get an overview. It was a little overwhelming and I didn’t know how we would remember everything, but there was no need to worry. We each took a station to start on prep and Stefano reminded us of all the steps we couldn’t remember, in addition to helping us with our knife skills and generally keeping a watchful eye on things.
After the initial prep work, we moved onto the actual cooking, and then plating and presentation, so everyone got to try their hand at a few different kitchen tasks. Once the knife work was complete, bottles of wine came out and poured freely for the rest of the evening. We started with pane con tomate, which was easy and delicious, and my favorite course: butternut squash and pear soup. No one was clear if that was even Spanish, but it was very good. We made tortilla espanola (Spanish omelet), a seafood paella, and for dessert a crema catalana that is similar to a crème brulee but not the same. The Catalans we met seemed to be emphatic that their version – some say the predecessor – was the superior dessert. I did get to try my hand at caramelizing the sugar with a butane torch, which was quite exciting and, surprisingly, was allowed after all the wine we’d been drinking.
You are not going to suddenly become a master chef in a three-hour class, or even learn all the skills needed to make the entire menu at home, but it’s a fun way to spend an evening, learn some recipes, discover some kitchen tips (like rubbing your fingers on stainless steel after working with garlic gets rid of the smell), and eat a nice meal with a group of people. When we started, I wondered how this group of random people with a variety of cooking experience would actually create this meal. Of course, we weren’t on our own, but it really was impressive and a good exercise in teamwork. It has definitely inspired me to look for other cooking classes on our travels in the future.