You know when you read a really good book, and all you want to do is go back to the beginning and start it again? When my mother and I took a paella-making class with Mi Paella en el Huerto (translation: "My Paella on/in the Farm/Garden/Orchard"- it translates fairly loosely into English) in Valencia, I immediately told my friend Becca that she had to go back with me so I could do it again. I gave her very little choice in the matter, but luckily she's the kind of friend that's up for anything.
What is Valencian paella? It's the granddaddy of all other paellas, the "OG" (Original Gangster), as the kids would call it nowadays. The basic ingredients are rice, meat (chicken or rabbit- not seafood), and a very short list of local vegetables and seasonings. If you add other ingredients, it becomes what the instructor, Rafa (aka "Professor Paella"), calls "arroz con cosas" (rice with things). It can still be yummy, but it's not paella.
Paella was invented by the rice farmers in the L'Albufera Lake region. While working hard in the fields, they would take a break and throw together a lunch made from items they could access easily. Since then, the definition of paella has stretched beyond simply a food. It's become an experience, a get-together among friends and family to enjoy this delicious rice dish.
Our day began with a hotel/AirBnB pickup that transported us to Sueca, a small town outside of Valencia where they hold the World Paella Championships. I would like to formally put my name in to be a judge for this event. I'll do it for free, guys- out of the sheer goodness of my heart.
From the moment I stepped out of the car, it felt as if I had always spent my Saturday afternoons among the orange orchards, laughing with friends, and making sangria and paella. Rafa speaks Spanish (with some English peppered in), but María is always by his side translating, so the experience is enjoyable regardless if you speak English or Spanish. Becca and I enjoyed switching back and forth, practicing our Spanish skills with Rafa, and then switching to English with María when our brains broke. The cooking area sits in front of large glass doors leading out to the garden. In good weather, they open them to let in the Spanish sunshine along with a fresh country breeze that spreads the smell of paella and fresh oranges all around.
While we waited for the paella to cook, they provided delicious, locally-sourced tapas for us to try, such as carrot slices with freshly-made hummus, and bread with the greatest aioli of all time. If anyone claims there is a better aioli, I will pull a full-fledged Kanye West-Imma-let-you-finish. But be advised: enjoy the tapas sparingly. There is nothing more shameful than being too full to finish your paella. I am a statistic. We are the people who eat too many tapas and can't finish our paella. The road to repairing our reputations is a long one.
My dear friends, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the taste of this paella in my mind. The crunchy rice from the bottom of the pan (called socarrat in the the Valencian language) haunts my waking dreams. I cannot begin to describe it without doing it a grave injustice. It's ineffable.
After the paella, they served us Valencian oranges and cake. I don't normally like oranges, but Valencian oranges are not oranges. They are juicy heaven balls.
I said what I said, and I'm not taking it back.
María and Rafa also explained that there are very clear rules for sharing paella, such as only eating from your side of the pan and defending your side aggressively with a fork. Be willing to draw blood if necessary. This is the way we roll in my family back home. It's not mealtime unless a hungry, wandering hand gets mercilessly impaled by a fork. Also, lemons were only used to clean the hands before eating. Keep them far away from your paella unless you want to seriously insult a Spanish cook!
When, not if, you book this experience, please do it directly through the Mi Paella en el Huerto website. Third party websites are great resources for reading reviews, but they keep some of the profits, and the Mi Paella team deserves every penny! At the end of the course, in the spirit of family trust, they provide you with a link to the secret paella recipe as well as the recipes for sangria and the other tapas from the experience. So if you don't book the experience for the paella (which would be weird), for the love of all things that are holy, do it for the aioli recipe!
I'm just trying to decide if going back a third time would make me a crazy person.