When I first moved to Seville, I was taken aback to see whole rabbits, fur intact, hanging by their heels in the butcher’s stall.
“Are you supposed to skin them yourself?” I asked incredulously of an American friend married to a Spaniard.
“No, they do it for you,” she reassured me. “My mother-in-law says they leave the fur on to make sure you know that it’s not a cat.” In the lean years following the Spanish Civil War, she explained, straying pets were considered fair game by hungry neighbors struggling to feed their family.
Since then I’ve learned a lot about the way Spanish food reflects local culture and history. For instance, salmorejo (a denser cold soup similar to gazpacho) and espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas) are thickened with day-old bread because in the lean years a stale baguette was far too precious to throw away.
And then there’s paella, which got its start in the rice fields of 18th century Valencia. “These were agricultural people, and they used whatever they had around,” Chef Victor told me during a cooking workshop last week. “Snails, rabbit, chicken.” Water voles and eels were popular then, too, I’ve heard. Ingredients may have evolved over the years, but one tradition is still honored, at least here in Spain; paella is prepared by men. And this totally works for me. My husband, Rich, makes terrific paella and is much in demand for potluck gatherings. Last week, discovering that Victor’s hot new cooking school, Taller Andaluz de Cocina, was offering a half-day paella workshop, Rich and I gathered up some visiting friends and enrolled.
"Spanish cooking,” Victor told the eleven eager faces around his worktable, “isn’t about fancy techniques. It’s about good ingredients . . . and patience.” Our class was held inside Triana Market, where generations of locals have shopped for fresh produce, meat, and fish.
Victor showed us how to prepare salmorejo and espinacas con garbanzos as well as paella (and with his permission, I'm sharing his recipes here). He assigned us enough tasks to make us feel part of the process while wisely reserving the tricky, critical bits for himself. The pace was leisurely, allowing ample time to chat with other students, all vacationers from distant countries. By the time we sat down to eat, Rich had acquired several tricks for upping his paella game, and I’d learned a lot about food tourism.
Ten years ago, food was a relatively minor consideration in planning vacations. Today, thanks in large part to popular cooking shows and the desire to post mouthwatering photos on social media, food tourism has become a $150 billion a year industry. At first it was all about dining on trendier fare in unusual places, such as pop-up restaurants and food trucks. Then diners invaded the kitchen to watch the magic happen and rub shoulders with the chef. Now travelers are visiting farms and markets to see edibles at their source, and spending time in the kitchen wearing an apron and wielding a paring knife.
Naturally a whole new industry has sprung up to feed this demand. Websites such as EatWith (where we booked Victor’s class), VizEat, and MealSharing enable you to arrange to dine in a local home in hundreds of cities around the world. Add “cooking class” to your search criteria, and you can often spend hands-on time in the kitchen as well. Not all are created equal, and you’ll want to read listings carefully and notice what’s said – and not said – in the reviews. For instance, is the chef fluent in a language you happen to speak? Are there gluten-free options? Is wine included?
Whether you're in a foodie mecca or a culinary backwater, chances are a cooking class can provide an affordable, unique experience with great food, lively socializing, and a vivid taste of local culture. I’ll never forget de-seeding hot peppers in a Mexican kitchen some years ago; my fingers stung for hours, and I learned my first Spanish swear words. Sore fingers seemed a small price to pay for a great meal and rich cultural experience. However, there are limits. I’d do hot peppers again, but I definitely draw the line at skinning rabbits.
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5/22/2015 08:28:14 am
Karen, This is a great blog post! Love it, Makes me even more excited about the upcoming trip to Spain and our cooking classes there. Thanks for the recipes!
5/22/2015 11:13:57 am
Glad you like the post, Tracy, and I know you'll love the recipes. Victor is an amazing chef. Enjoy your trip to Spain!
5/22/2015 09:47:49 am
Have to check out cooking classes in Malaga on our next visit. We did a class in Budapest at the Great Market Hall on our first visit to that city. Great way to learn about a culture. By the way, love the spinach garbanzo bean dish. Always something I order in Spain!
5/22/2015 11:16:17 am
A cooking class in Budapest's Great Market Hall sounds fabulous, Kay! Rich and I have done a few in the past, but we are now determined to work cooking classes into any and all travel plans. As you say, a great way to learn about a culture.
5/22/2015 10:16:37 am
A great review of this class! I was in the class and really enjoyed it all, fell in love with Seville too
5/22/2015 11:18:15 am
It was a wonderful class, wasn't it, Caren? I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and that you've fallen in love with Seville, as I did. Great cooking with you! Come back often!
5/24/2015 06:48:01 am
Thank you so much! I love the text and was a pleasure to have you there! You have a new follower for this blog too, of course.
5/25/2015 01:46:58 am
The pleasure was all mine. I had a terrific time in the class, and learned a lot about Spanish cooking. I hope to take your class on pig cheeks one of these days!
5/24/2015 08:10:29 am
Your post reminded of me of my as yet failed intention of taking a paella cooking class in nearby Valencia, which is paella central. True paella can only consist of a few select ingredients. The rest are called arroces (rices) which have numerous versions. With my recent move to Spain, I enjoy trying to make some of the delicious dishes I have tried.
5/25/2015 01:50:30 am
Victor agrees with you, Dawn; he told us the only true paella is Valencia-style, which contains some combination of chicken, rabbit and snails; everything else is just rice. The paella I ate in Valencia was spectacular. Let me know if you ever take a cooking class there; I'd love to find out if they have any special secrets.
3/9/2022 01:27:12 am
Your experience in cooking is very interesting! I enjoyed reading it. I want to share a school that is specialized in cooking classes. "Trupp the Chef's Table". https://truppthechefstable.com They have courses suited both for beginners and advanced cooks on the kitchen. Once again, thanks!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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