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Know how to make paella? Think again

Associated Press Associated Press 19/07/2016 Marjorie Miller

Of course we know the Spanish rice dish paella, we tell our Barcelona chef. It is the colour of a Mediterranean sunrise, a coral red or saffron yellow.

Chef Rosa Camprodon shakes her head. Or maybe that's a shudder. She is our instructor at a Barcelona cooking school that caters to tourists, and she is teaching us to make paella Catalonia-style: a rich coppery brown.

Camprodon tosses finely diced onion into a pan of hot olive oil and has one student stir it. Add the tomato, and stir. Never let it sit on the flame, she says. Never let it burn. Add rice and stir 15 minutes in all, or until the mixture is a deep brown, ready for other ingredients.

"There are as many paellas as there are cooks," Camprodon says. "But paella is not red or yellow. It is brown. The darkness depends on how long you caramelise the onions in their own natural sugar."

Chefs are nothing if not opinionated about food. And food, like art or history, is a great gateway into a new place. So on our first trip to Barcelona, my husband and I signed up for a half-day class with the Cook and Taste school. But before we tackled the paella, we spent a few hours on the history, gathering food for thought on a group walking tour about the Spanish Civil War.

Our guide, Nick Lloyd, met us in the morning near La Rambla and La Boqueria market as tourists and foodies began to pour in. But he took us back to a time when the city was draped in red and black flags, with workers armed for battle. Here in the 1930s, he explained, followers of "Karl Marx, Adam Smith and the anarchists" joined forces in a revolutionary government in Catalonia, to fight against the fascists led by Gen. Francisco Franco - before turning on each other.

Lloyd pointed out a building once occupied by anarchists, across the plaza from another occupied by communists, and down La Ramba to the hotel where George Orwell stayed when he joined other volunteers who came to Spain from around the world to fight Franco. Lloyd recited passages from Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" by heart, and explained that the war was a prelude to World War II.

Franco crushed Barcelona's revolutionary government when his forces took the city in 1939, and he ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 1975. It took decades for Barcelona to recover, but today the city is a bustling cosmopolitan centre, known not so much for its bloody past and revolutionary struggles as for, among other things, Gaudi, soccer and of course, food.

The city's cuisine gained international fame in part thanks to the innovative chef Ferran Adria. His El Bulli restaurant closed in 2011 but his influence remains. And maybe that's why we even thought to take a cooking class.

The menu at Cook and Taste was gazpacho, roasted vegetables and cod over flatbread, seafood paella and, for dessert, crema Catalana. Our diverse group of 12 from the US, Singapore and Australia had much to learn and eat in four hours: The ham must be room temperature so the fat melts over the meat to bring out the flavour. The cockles for the paella should be cleaned in cold water with salt "so it feels like home," Camprodon said. The mussels, well, "they are very sociable, you know," so you must remove the thin beard-like membrane they use to cling to each other and to rocks.

We prepared dessert first so it would have time to chill. One group whisked egg yolks and milk infused with lemon peel and cinnamon. The scented mixture was poured into terracotta dishes and refrigerated.

Another group diced and blended gazpacho, using the traditional tomato, cucumber, green pepper and garlic along with unusual ingredients: watermelon and beets.

Camprodon prepared flatbread dough ahead, so it could rise before baking. We roasted eggplant, onions and red pepper, peeled the peppers and cut the vegetables into strips before boiling the cod in hot olive oil with garlic and cayenne. The bread was cut into squares and layered with vegetables and fish.

Finally, the paella. "This is a social event. We make it on Sundays with kids everywhere and sometime people fight, 'No, I make the best paella, I do it better...' but there is plenty for everyone to do. This is hard work," Camprodon explained.

We took turns stirring onions, added vegetables, rice and a saffron-garlic paste, then spread it evenly in a pan. "No empty spaces, please," Camprodon said. She added plenty of salt but not as much as locals seem to like.

Cockles, mussels and shrimp were laid on top, then fish stock was poured into the pan and brought to a boil. "Another rule of paella: Never, ever stir after the stock has been added," she said. "Ideally, the rice is a little al dente."

We ate gazpacho and flatbread as the paella cooked. At last, it was ready, as delicious as it looked. We savoured the flavours but left room for the finale: our Catalan dessert, topped by sugar caramelised with a kitchen blow torch.

We left sated, educated and ready for a siesta.

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