We beat the alarm by a good half hour and we are up and about at 7:30. We both shower and get dressed in leisurely fashion and we are out the door at 8:55. We are headed for a new venture called Food&Fun that recently opened in Valencia. They offer two hour cooking seminars where you learn to prepare different types and styles of food. Susan took a class on tapas there on September 30 and we are headed back there this morning. Here is a link to their website http://www.foodandfun.es/
Today’s class is entitled “Sopas, guisos y arroces tradicionales de nuestras abuelas”, which translates as traditional soups, stews and rice dishes like our grandmother used to make. This will be a six hour class because it begins with a trip to the Central Market. Today’s guest chef is Jordi Morera Siscar, the head chef at a lovely restaurant called Seu-Xerea. Here is a link to the restaurant’s website http://www.seuxerea.com/page/english/04-photo/photos.htm .
A little after 9:00 AM twenty of us head out to the Central Market. The class consists of men and women, English and Spanish speakers from a variety of backgrounds. Most of the participants live in Valencia and some have driven for almost an hour to get to this class. We enter the market and head straight for the fish counter. It is here we get a lesson on how to select fresh fish. You can tell that a fish is fresh by the stiffness of the body, the condition of the scales and the clarity of the cornea. The condition of the gills is no longer a valid test, since there is a powder that can be used that can restore the proper color to the gills and hide the fact that the fish is rather old. Frozen fish is to be eschewed because freezing breaks down the cells of the fish and also removes the water that was naturally contained within the fish. The result is a dry piece of fish when you cook it. He gives us another lesson on how to tell fresh seafood from frozen and thawed. It is the condition of the antennae that is the clue to look for. He also counsels us to avoid farm raised fish. When you open up a farm raised fish to gut it, you will discover a rather thick layer of fat. Our final lesson deals with the difference between similar fish from different waters and the differences that will cause in both the fish’s exterior and its flesh.
Lesson two takes place at a fruit and vegetable stand. We learn to differentiate the recently picked produce from that product that his been sitting around for a while. If the roots of a bunch of spinach are black, that means that is was picked a while ago. The condition of the stem of a vegetable is another indicator of freshness. We also learn that a tomato that has ripened on the vine has much less acid than one that was picked green and has ripened with the passage of time. Our next stop is the “pollería where we will select our chicken.
Since we will be making a chicken stock, Jordi asks for some bones to be added to the soup pot. He then picks out a large chicken, yellow in color because it was corn fed, and one that roamed freely in a barnyard. These chickens have not been injected with hormones nor has there been any salt water added to plump them up. The color of the meat is unlike anything I have ever seen in an American supermarket and the taste, I will soon discover, is unlike that of any chicken that I have previously tasted. This is chicken that tastes like chicken!
We now have all our ingredients and we exit the market and head for a café where we will all pause for a coffee. This is another opportunity to chat with other participants in the class and find out a little about them. We pay our bill and then head back to the classroom, which is a five minute walk from the market. We are all equipped with an apron, as well as pencil and a paper. The tables are moved into a horseshoe shape and we all take our seats pencils at the ready. Given the menu of the day, today’s lesson will be lecture style, rather than hands on.
Jordi begins the process by explaining to us that he will make three stocks, a chicken stock, a fish stock and a shellfish stock. We learn that a chicken stock is neutral in that it can be used in a variety of dishes. The three stocks will be used in the preparation of a seafood stew, an octopus and potato stew, a paella made with cauliflower and salt cod, a rabbit and artichoke stew and lastly a chicken dish made with summer vegetables, potatoes and rice. We learn how to chop vegetables without chopping our fingers in the process and I get to see a number of vegetables that I have never seen at a supermarket or a farmers’ market. I finally get to see thistles (cardos in Spanish). It sort of looks like celery, but it is really a member of the artichoke family. We learn how to remove the fiber and then we learn that it must be soaked in lemon and water to remove the bitterness of the product.
All the dishes are cooking away and the aromas are intense. We learn that salt is never added to any of these dishes until the very end, which is when you salt to taste. All of the dishes are now ready to be served and so we all take our seats at a long table as Jordi places the five dishes at different parts of the table. I am fortunate because the chicken dish is set right in front of me and the octopus stew is directly to my right. Wine glasses are filled and the assemble group attacks, but in an orderly and polite fashion. I sample the chicken, the octopus and the seafood stew and all three are mouthwateringly delicious. I then taste the paella and it too is wonderful, but not as flavorful as the other dishes. I am now quite full, so I pass on the rabbit. Susan samples it and reports that it is very tasty.
When lunch is over, I approach Jordi and ask him if I can interview him on video and he agrees. He then thinks about it and invites Susan and me to join him at the restaurant for Monday lunch where I can take pictures, dine on a “puchero” and interview him. Of course we accept. At 3:00 PM we say our goodbyes and head back home. I slip out a bit later and develop some of the photos that I took earlier today so that I can give them to the vendors in the market whose pictures I took, as well as to Jordi. When I get back I take it easy until it is time for us to go out and meet a fellow Angelino who has been living in Valencia for the last three years.
Nick Stoup is a percussionist with the Valencia Symphony Orchestra. He is originally from Pasadena and has his degree from Julliard. He subbed on occasion with the New York Phil and then moved back west when he realized that there were more opportunities for work with the San Diego Symphony and the LA Phil. He responded to an open audition for the Valencia Symphony some four years ago and won the chair. We walk to his house, which is in a section called Cánovas, ring his bell and in a few minutes we start out on a tour of the area. He shows us some of the better bars and restaurants and midway through the tour, we stop at an outdoor café and have a glass of wine or two. We end up back at his apartment and he gives us the grand tour of his four bedroom apartment that has two and a half bathrooms, one of which has a dry sauna. His rent is 1,000 Euros a month and it is an incredible value for this furnished apartment. He currently has a roommate, who is also a member of the symphony, so that cuts his monthly rent bill in half. We say our goodbyes and Nick says that he might be able to get us in to a rehearsal of the performance that they are currently working on. As we take the elevator down, we cross our fingers and hope that it will come to pass.
Back home we raid the refrigerator and put on another episode of Los Hombre de Paco. Suddenly it is 1:00 AM, so we drop the dishes in the sink and head upstairs after what has been a rather long, but satisfying, day.