Olé! Mastering Paella and more at the Barcelona Tapas Cooking Class

At 11 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday morning, about a dozen of us are seated around a large granite counter on the first level of Barcelona Tapas restaurant. Chef Juan Pablo Valencia, who has worked at the restaurant for ten years, introduces himself and welcomes us to “paella 101.”

My husband and I have been coming to Puerto Vallarta for many years and Barcelona Tapas is always tops on our “must-do” restaurant list. We invite a group of friends so we can sample lots of the hot and cold tapas, plus a paella platter, all washed down by a frosty pitchers of red and white Sangria. I was perusing the menu a few weeks ago when I noticed that the restaurant was offering paella classes.

The restaurant’s chef and owner, William Carballo, a self-confessed workaholic who is passionate about Spanish food, opened his restaurant a few blocks up from the Malecon in 2000. Prior to that, the Chicago-born intrepid chef and entrepreneur travelled to Spain to study the language and the local cuisine. That’s where he became a paella aficionado.

So here I am with my foodie friend, Gwen, ready to master the art of paella, a rice-based savoury dish originating from Valencia, Spain. Chef commences by making two stocks, chicken and fish, from scratch. As he passes around the ingredients, he explains that for paella he will use 70 per cent fish stock and 30 per cent chicken so the dish won’t taste too fishy. The stocks will simmer for about 45 minutes and then rest refrigerated overnight to intensify their flavours.

 As the fragrant aromas of simmering broths waft through the air, chef surprises us by announcing that today he will also make a ceviche. He dices a fresh red snapper filet and puts it in a bowl with some kosher salt and lime juice. Next he adds finely chopped red onion, pear, orange, cilantro, apple, Serrano chile, cucumber and ginger to this amazing fish/fruit salad. He tosses all the ingredients and then adds tiny bay scallops and tiger’s milk (a marinade that contains lime juice, onion and chilies).

Chef’s waiters expertly pass around plates of the ceviche and pour glasses of chilled white Chardonnay from Spain. The ceviche is a sublime balance of citrus and fish with a bit of crunchiness.

Turning his attention back to the paella, chef brings out two stocks made the day before and combines them in the 70/30 ratio. To this he adds white wine and saffron. We get to sample the broth before and after the saffron to taste the difference the intensity of the saffron makes.

As we watch, the waiters pass around piping hot crab and shrimp croquettes with homemade tartar sauce. They are most generous with the wine.

Now chef starts to assemble the paella. He holds up a traditional paella pan to show how the tiny holes help evenly circulate the heat. Into the pan go minced garlic, olive oil, chicken and spicy chorizo sausage. Next comes short-grain rice, cooked almost risotto-style as he pours in the broth.

 As chef adds mussels, shrimp, bay scallops and red snapper to the mixture, we are served flutes of zesty gazpacho made with oven-roasted beets and then a salad with walnuts and blue cheese.
When the rice looks fluffy and moist, chef cranks up the heat up for about 40 seconds until we can smell the rice toasting at the bottom of the pan. This is called socaratt. Chef adds a final flourish of peas and parsley.
The class is invited upstairs to the restaurant’s third level where we are served the aromatic rice dish, plus more wine. Everything is delicious.

Would I actually go home and make paella? Maybe, but as long as I’m in Puerto Vallarta, I’ll let the experts at Barcelona Tapas create their magic and I’ll just enjoy the best paella in town, along with the fabulous sunset views of the Bay of Banderas.

As I write this, the Barcelona Tapas website informs me that in its 16 years of business there have been 9,658 paellas served and 141,826 happy diners. Olé.

The paella cooking classes take place November to May 24 every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Barcelona Tapas. Cost is 795 pesos. www.barcelonatapas.net

Anita Draycott is a freelance travel journalist from Toronto who has chosen to spend her winters in the Puerto Vallarta area for the past decade.