“Chicos, you are the chef,” says chef Candido Cid Doniz, emphasizing that at Barcelona Cooking, a culinary school on the fashionable promenade in Barcelona known as Las Ramblas, participants don’t sit and passively observe. They don an apron, pick up a spatula and whip up some of the Catalonia region’s most distinctive dishes.
And that means doing the dirty work, like gutting and slicing cuttlefish and de-bearding mussels for seafood paella, that saffron-scented, rice-based dish that has evolved from lowly peasant fare to elegant comfort food.
The British couple in charge of this unenviable task struggle at first, but with Doniz’s guidance, they show those mussels who’s boss and get the job done. They present the cleaned mollusks triumphantly, not unlike kindergartners proudly showing their teacher a completed assignment and expecting a gold star.
I confess I was enormously thankful to be on chopping duty, dicing onions and garlic instead of digging the intestines out of a cuttlefish.
Truthfully, I’m a bit of a slacker in the kitchen, always looking for shortcuts. When I prepare this dish at home, I plan to buy seafood that is ready to throw in the pot without all the fuss.
Of course, the point of this hands-on learning is to ensure that everyone can replicate the recipes when they return home to the United States, Canada and England. Since instruction is in English, these nationalities often comprise the majority of the class.
Because classes are small, everyone gets plenty of one-on-one time with the chef, who quickly puts cooks of all levels of experience at ease with his humor and laid-back charm.
Soon, the kitchen is a flurry of mixing, pouring, chopping, whisking and sautéing.
Doniz seems to be everywhere at once, keeping an eye on his “chicos” as they work in pairs, preparing not only the paella, but refreshing mint-infused strawberry gazpacho, a sweet and tangy cold soup that originated in the southern region of Andalusia, and a hearty Spanish omelet loaded with chunks of fried potatoes. Everyone is looking forward to a grand finale of crema Catalan, the Spanish version of crême brulée.
Cooking up the real deal
In an accent as soothing as a glass of tempranillo, Doniz announces we have earned a break and passes around a plate of pan con tomate, bread rubbed with garlic and tomato. Simple but delicious, it is commonly served as an appetizer or eaten for breakfast.
Our short break gives everyone a chance to ask questions about the iconic Spanish dish we will be sharing. There are probably as many variations of paella in Spain as pasta in Italy. It can be cooked with rabbit, pork or chicken, depending on availability of ingredients, but on the Mediterranean coast where fresh seafood is bountiful, seafood paella is by far the most popular version.
Using the proper rice is crucial. Doniz recommends bomba, a short-grained rice that absorbs more of the flavorful fish stock than most other varieties and doesn’t stick together.
I have always believed the best way to immerse oneself in a foreign culture is through food. No matter where I travel, I find that inquiring about the best local cuisine is a great icebreaker with the locals. Food is also a topic of conversation that never offends, unlike the pricklier subjects that can get to the heart of a place: politics and religion. But the subject of food can safely lead to there, since practically every culture around the world has specific dishes associated with religious holidays or patriotic festivals.
At last, we sit down to savor the fruits of our labor. Topped with artfully arranged prawns and mussels, this paella is by far the most authentic I have eaten in Barcelona. The color is golden-brown from the saffron, just as it should be. Doniz warned that the touristy restaurants on La Rambla sometimes add coloring in an attempt to give a flavorless dish some visual appeal.
Foray into a food market
For me, the only thing more enjoyable than digging into the seafood paella was shopping for the ingredients at the sprawling Boqueria Market, a foodie’s paradise stocked not only with fresh local seafood, meat and produce, but unique specialty items from around the globe.
Have a hankering for a durian, that smelly, spiky fruit grown only in Southeast Asia? No problem. Need a whole sheep’s head complete with the eyeballs? They will bag it up. Think eating bull testicles will boost your masculinity? Got it right here.
We were completely dazzled by the novel sights and smells.
As Doniz purchased a bag of mussels from a seafood vendor, he pointed out a pile of crustaceans that looked like they belonged in a sci-fi movie: barnacles. No, not the kind you scrape off a boat. This tasty variety is a delicacy often served at Christmas.
Doniz is passionate about sharing the gastronomic delights of Catalonia, and he hopes that his students find the same pleasure in their home kitchens as they do in his.
“To me, the kitchen is heaven,” Doniz says. “A place to relax, socialize and share.”
While he’s forever looking over someone’s shoulder giving cooking instructions, he says the most important thing is to “Cook with love.”
Tracey Teo is an Indiana-based travel writer.