To be perfectly honest, I was not that excited to meet at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s most famous market on La Rambla, at 9:30am for a tour. La Boqueria is a ‘must’ for most visitors, which means it’s crowded. Our tour was on a Saturday, which is the big shopping day for locals, and that added to my concern about heaving throngs and long lines. It turns out that very few people go shopping at 9:00am. I guess I never noticed this, not being much of an early-riser on Saturdays. Our small group of five (four ‘students’ and one chef) moved easily through the ancient market’s vast passageways.
“Where is everyone, Maria?” I asked the guide.
“It’s still too early, that’s why we made you get out of bed at 8:00am! Wait until noon and this place will be packed.”
Maria Jose Mantilla was our guide, foodie-guru, teacher, and personal chef for our Cook & Taste tour and cooking class. On the menu were typical Catalan foods: seasonal calçots (a sort of cross between a green onion and a leek), creamy romesco sauce (my favorite sauce in the whole wide world), an onion and thyme soup, a seafood paella, and Catalan custard for dessert (called Crema Catalana in Barcelona). Our small group bonded quickly. Maria was from Colombia but had become a chef in Barcelona, Ray and Tanya were from Arizona, USA, and then there was my husband, Adri, from Barcelona proper.
“Uh oh! We’ve got a real Catalan with us!” joked Maria, adding, “He’s going to correct me on all my grammar mistakes.”
But Maria didn’t make any mistakes as she zigzagged through the market, the rest of us trailing after her like happy ducklings. As we strolled she filled us in on interesting market factoids, like that 40% of the fish is locally-sourced at La Boqueria and 60% is from other parts of the globe. She ordered a pound of fresh mussels, a half pound of clams, and several slippery cuttlefish from the fishmonger in perfect Catalan. Then she took us to the ham stand and explained the difference between Iberian ham and other varieties in perfect English, only to turn to the ham man and ask for a generous portion of acorn-fed ham in Spanish. I was impressed by how much she knew about Spanish and Catalan culture, and the ease with which she changed languages. She was good.
“What are those?” Tanya asked, pointing to one butcher’s stand.
“Oh wow! They leave all the heads and bits on…”
“Yes, and there’s lots of game,” said Maria.
“Yeah,” said Tanya, “I had rabbit for the very first time yesterday.”
“Rabbit is very Spanish. There are too many of them. Thursday and Sunday are ‘hare-killing’ days in Spain,” said Maria, and then we were off to the next stand.
Before exiting La Boqueria we purchased beet sprouts, green asparagus, berries, quail’s eggs, sweet peppers, cherry tomatoes, and a few pink langoustines. Back at the Cook & Taste kitchen in the Gothic Quarter the rest of our party was waiting for us: three high-school girls and their two teachers. We got right down to business, putting on our aprons and nibbling on olives. Maria announced that this was a hands-on experience and sent the teens to shuck calçots at the sink while the teachers, Mary and Susan, started to prepare the Catalan custard. The Arizona couple got set up with cutting boards slicing and dicing onions. Maria showed them how to properly cut an onion, and then taught us all a little trick.
“If you don’t want to cry, leave the onion root on while you cut it,” she instructed, and we all shared an ‘ah-ha’ moment.
Adri and I were on romesco duty. I love romesco sauce. I buy it by the jar and eat it on asparagus and broccoli; I turn it into a salad dressing; I smother it on codfish and then bake it. There’s not much I wouldn’t do with it. Since I’d been told so many times that it was terribly hard to make, I never gave it a try. Granted, it’s not exactly easy, but after class with Maria I feel I could make a darn good romesco. It all boils down to tomatoes, lots of roasted garlic, peppers, almonds, and what Maria refers to as, ‘Spain’s Holy Trinity’. No, it’s not the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, but salt, olive oil, and vinegar! All true Spanish dishes have the Trinity (think of gazpacho, paella, or even a salad dressing). We blended the romesco with an electric hand mixer and then the whole class came over to try it. I was curious to see their reaction, as they had never sampled romesco before, and did not know of its wonderfully addictive deliciousness. Of course, it was a hit. Everyone had second helpings of romesco on top of their oven-roasted calçots.
Back in December I was in the United States. My dad called me and said, “I’m going to have a paella-party. How about you make the paella?”
Easy enough, I thought. After all, I’ve eaten tons of paella and have made fideuà many times.
“How many people will be at the dinner party?” I wondered.
“Oh, about 15 to 20…more or less.”
“No problem, but we’ll have to find fish stock!”
And we did find fish stock in an Asian market, but this did not stop me from destroying the paella. I added too much rice, and perhaps too much paprika. It took ages. People ate it, and some may have even liked it, but that is only because they had never had a real paella before. I’ve been haunted by this dinner-disaster for months. So, when Maria started us on making the paella, I was all ears and taking detailed notes. She didn’t use garlic, and the saffron threads were in the fish stock ahead of time. These were a couple of differences I noticed, among a few others.
Our merry group (now sipping wine as we cooked — red and white were available) de-bearded the mussels and scrapped them clean. We diced peppers for the ‘sofrito’, which is the base of the paella. When it was time, we added the round, fat rice and then the fish stock.
“Paella rice is three-to-one: it needs much more water than other rice.” Maria chirped, and I wrote it down in my notebook.
Finally we added the clams and mussels. Our group gathered around the ample pan and cooed as each mussel opened.
“There goes another one!” one teen exclaimed.
“You people are easy to please,” said Maria, “It’s fun to have a group like this.”
And it was fun. I’ve been in Barcelona since 2005 and I know a lot about the city, the culture, and the food. Adri has been here three decades. We both had as much fun as all of the first-timers in the group. We learned about our own food and culture and hopefully also grasped how to make a decent paella. I’ve yet to try out Maria’s recipe at home, but will do soon.
When the rice was fully cooked, Maria told us it was time to eat. First we had the calçots with their rich romesco sauce, grilled asparagus, tomatoes, and the beet sprout garnish. Then the light thyme and onion soup, served with an Idiazábal cheese wafer, and a poached quail’s egg. The third course was our masterpiece paella. Several of the teens didn’t want to eat mussels because they looked ‘nasty’, but they got caught up in the moment and ended up trying them, and – gasp! – liking them! We chatted, we laughed, and then out came our desserts, the Crema Catalana, garnished with a few bobbles of fruit and berries. We washed it all down with more Spanish wine and good conversation.
Clearly, I’m a big fan of the Cook & Taste experience. Critiques? It’s hard to find much fault but if there’s room for improvement it would be this: more snacks while we cook, because we hadn’t eaten much breakfast and both Adri and I were famished. Also, the red wine could have been a better brand, although the white was quite nice. I also think in classes like this, and all classes and tours for that matter, that the teacher or guide makes a huge difference. If your guide is boring, the tour will probably be dull. Maria was passionate about what she was doing. I believe that the other students also add to or take away from the experience. We got lucky because everyone was friendly and really into food. Cooking classes tend to attract a curious and open-minded type of traveler, and the unlimited quantities of Spanish wine helped folks relax and feel jolly. For the traveler who wants to eat authentic Catalan food and maybe make some friends in the process, this is a good way to spend a morning in Barcelona.
MORE: Cook & Taste tours and classes: http://www.cookandtaste.net/
**We were guests of the Cook & Taste experience. All opinions are my own. I tell it like I see it. We had a blast and are ever so grateful to Maria and the rest of the Cook & Taste team.