One of Busabout’s recommended partners in Barcelona is a company, catering primarily to backpackers and exchange students, imaginatively named the Travel Bar. They have a variety of offerings, ranging from walking tours to bike tours to snorkeling trips, plus they operate several bars within Barcelona’s core. One excursion that most of us on the coach signed up for was the Spanish Cooking Experience, an evening that promised tapas, sangria and seafood paella.
I tend to be a bit cynical when it comes to signing up for excursions and recommended activities as I often find them to be a bit expensive and I’m never completely sure about the value. Busabout recommended a €22 cycling tour, for example, while the Travel Bar offered one that was free – or €5 if you needed to rent a bike for the duration. The Spanish Cooking Experience, meanwhile, was €20 through Busabout and seemed as though it was good value for money.
There was one slight issue, though. We were told to arrive for 7pm and the experience actually started at around 6pm. I missed the trip to the market, La Boqueria, where the chef would buy some of the ingredients for the meal… I had already visited the market earlier in the day (and planned another trip), but the guys who run the Travel Bar took complete responsibility for giving us the wrong time and offered to either refund some money or give us two free drinks upon the conclusion of the night. I had actually arrived a bit early so I walked to the kitchen with the group, while three people who arrived on time actually missed trying most of the tapas that were on offer.
The chef, Fernando, had prepared a plate of cured meats, manchego cheese slices, olives, pepper, breads (with tomato) and olive oil for us to try while mingling and as he prepared the ingredients for the paella. The tapas with bread, known as pinxtos, required a few steps of preparation. You took the bread, rubbed some cut tomato on it as if “grating” the tomato then drizzled it with olive oil before piling on meat, cheese and either an olive or pepper. In traditional pinxtos restaurants you keep the toothpick that is used to secure the toppings to the bread as they count your toothpicks at the end of the night to determine how much to charge you.
He also brought out some hot tapas, including the traditional patatas bravas, a cubed potato that is deep fried and then coated in a spicy sauce of mayo, sweet paprika, ground paprika, chili and cajun spice. I have found my new french fry dip, because the sauce was amazing. Everyone quickly descended on the food, building pinxtos and gobbling up the patatas bravas. Another highlight was the sangria, which we were supposed to learn how to make right off the bat so that we could mix our own all night (we had been promised all you can drink sangria), but the chef mixed a few pitchers for us and that was more or less it until we were done the preparation for the paella.
We were told that, if we wanted, we could volunteer in the preparation. One person in the group had been quite vocal about his experience as a chef, so he was the first to descend into the kitchen area, eager to roll up his sleeves. A few others wanted to help, cutting up vegetables or measuring ingredients. I chose to stand back, hanging out with a Canadian couple I had met over the past few Busabout legs and we watched, somewhat horrified, as basic hand washing and hygiene protocol was completely ignored. One guy loudly, and rather grossly, blew his nose, wiped it and then went right back to doing some prep work. The chef also had his hands full with his female helpers, patiently showing them how to cut up a green pepper or onion. I’m a terrible cook, and a lazy one, but even I have never had to be shown how to cut up a green pepper.
I’m actually a bit surprised we didn’t have any injuries during this portion of the night, especially since sangria consumption was mixed with sharp knives and inexperienced prep cooks.
Fernando did an excellent job of explaining the cooking process, starting with a demonstration of the pans, called “paelleria,” used to cook paella. He had all sizes, ranging from one for groups of 40 people to small pans that you would use for a couple. He recommended that you not cook paella for one, simply due to the lack of appropriate pans available. The first step in any paella recipe is to add in a huge amount of olive oil and then some raw garlic cloves – not chopped – so that you could flavour the pan.
He focused on several important aspects in the cooking of paella (and all dishes, really), repeatedly telling us to try and cook everything at the same temperature for the same amount of time. He also stressed the importance of temperature when cooking seafood and that by adding four different types of seafood (calamari, clams, mussels and prawns) you would have to cool the dish at least three times to keep the seafood from overcooking and becoming rubbery. Cooling the dish is as simple as adding cold white wine, chilled tomato sauce and then room temperature water.
There are different types of paella that you can cook. For chicken paella, he told us to make sure that the pieces of chicken are cut to roughly the size of a clam. Vegetable paella, meanwhile, should have at least six different types of vegetables but not cut too small because once you add the rice it takes a while for it to cook. Valencian paella is made of a mix of meats, usually chicken and rabbit, but it also can contain chorizo which should never be sliced thinly.
There were a few culinary tips that I picked up, namely the one about adding ingredients to the middle of the pan. I had known that paella used risotto rice, but I didn’t realize that it was the stirring of the risotto that caused it to have its creamy texture – you have to stay very hands off with paella in order to make the arborio rice al dente and not mushy. It should be noted that the rice, and the peas, were the only things not added directly to the middle of the pan. Fernando created a sort of trench in the middle of the pan then poured the rice into the trench, topping it with green peas. After he poured in the liquid and ensured the rice was all coated, it was hands off. Time to make sangria!
Cheap boxed wine, orange juice, lemon Fresca (or sprite, or lemon juice), fresh fruit, brandy and rum are all combined to make sangria. Everyone was eager to try their hand at making their own sangria – which was a bit of a challenge when there were only two pitchers to go around (we were promised an additional two, but they never appeared) – but I really thought that the stuff Fernando had made for us was the best. Experience matters when making a good sangria, and he quickly confirmed that there was no one sangria recipe – everyone had their own variation – but that the most important thing was red wine and fruit.
After about 16 minutes, the paella was ready to be served! We were all given heaping plates of steaming hot paella, a tease because I had to wait for it to cool down. The seafood was cooked perfectly and it was interesting to see how squeamish a few people were about what we were eating. The prawns still had their heads on, staring up at us, which doesn’t faze me but it seemed to make a few people uncomfortable. I just don’t like it because my hands get messy trying to unpeel the shell… I’m very practical.
We finished the paella, finished the sangria and then headed off to the Travel Bar for our free cocktails! They served them up to us with no problems and no questions asked, which was pretty impressive. Despite the confusion at the beginning, I couldn’t help but have a fun night and would highly recommend this Spanish Cooking Experience for anyone with about €20 to spare and a free evening.