Valencia, Spain: a City Tasting Tour
here are two iconic images associated with Valencia, which immediately spring to mind when we think of Spain’s third most populated city and capital of the autonomous Valencia region on the east coast of the country.
One is the Calatrava City of Arts and Sciences erected for the Expo event and captured in hundreds of tourists’ selfies. The other is paella. Two images that well represent Valencia today: a city comfortably at ease in its provincial dimension, proud of its traditions and unwilling to give up its leisurely attitude. Nonetheless, this city is evolving at a steady pace – also with regard to its restaurants.
All there is to know about (authentic) paella
One of the best known and widely exported dishes of Spain, paella has its roots in Valencia. And, contrary to the widely held belief, it contains no fish, but only meat: chicken, rabbit, mangetouts, beans and peppers (snails are optional).
There are many addresses worth mentioning in the city: one of the best is certainly that of Casa Carmela. Somewhat off the beaten track of the city centre, this restaurant first opened in the twenties on the beach of Malvarrosa and is still run by the same family.
Here, paella is strictly cooked over a wood fire for a restricted number of customers every day, using spanking fresh ingredients: when it gets to the table with its perfect layer of “toasted” rice sticking to the pan bottom (called “la socarrat”), and its subtle aroma of saffron mingled with that of the wood fire, you realize that any other paella you ever tasted before was nothing but a pallid imitation.
Our research on paella, however, is not only accompanied by the sound of wooden spoons (the traditional utensil for serving it). To learn more about the essential role played by rice growing in Spain in general, and in the region of Valencia in particular – when visiting the Natural Reserve of Albufera extending to the south of the city - drop in at the Rice Museum, housed in an old windmill restored by the Municipality and University of Valencia.
If your trip includes excursions out of town, it is worth going as far as the fascinating Cullera lagoon. Here you will find Casa Salvador which, for sixty years – without a closing day, as the owners like to recall – has been serving traditional paella, along with other more recent interpretations like the one with seafood, with duck and eel or with sepia ink.
Don’t miss tasting the Fideuà, which is made with a sort of fine spaghetti. The starter selection is superb so start your dinner with a glass of cava accompanied with anchovies and jamòn, as the sunset lazily tinges the waters of the Cullera: a postcard-like experience you will not easily forget.
Paella is just one of the delights to be experienced when eating out in Valencia. The best way to start exploring the ancient town centre is make your way to a horchateria to taste the city’s typical beverage, a sort of milky drink made from water, tiger nuts and sugar.
In Plaza Santa Catalina stands the time-honoured and highly popular establishments Horchatería Santa Catalina and Horchatería El Siglo. The former is more touristy while the latter has a more intimate feel but both serve an horchata worthy of tradition: creamy and very sweet. Should these calories fail to satisfy you entirely, dunk some fartons into your glass, by which we mean giant breadsticks of leavened dough coated with sugar or even chocolate at times.
One of the tourist attractions of Valencia is certainly that of the Mercado Central. In its 8,160 square metres, housed inside a modernist building dating back to the early 1900s, 300 producers sell gourmet products from every corner of the country. You risk entering out of curiosity and leaving so loaded with Cecina de Léon (dried beef) and cheese that you need to buy an extra suitcase to return home.
Another market that is highly popular with tourists and locals alike is that of the Mercado de Colón. If you are looking for a quick, affordable snack, try the Central Bar in the first and the Habitual in the second, both owned by Valencia’s starred chef Ricard Camarena.
Finally, no day out in Spain would be complete without ordering a round of tapas. At Casa Montaña, in an enveloping atmosphere of times gone by, you will find the better known specialities from Patatas bravas to fish Berberechos (preserves) and a marvellous selection of wines.
The reign of Quique Dacosta
At a 30’ car drive from Valencia stands Dénia, a seaside town which rose to fame thanks to its most illustrious citizen, Quique Dacosta. With a career of 29 years behind him and three Michelin stars conquered in 2013, this chef occupies a foremost position in the Spanish avant-garde fringe, proudly expressed in his interviews - "To eat is one activity in the restaurant, but it’s not the only one. Avant-garde cuisine should be free from the responsibility of feeding people” he told us here.
Once seated in his restaurant – which reveals all of Dacosta’s passion for art, design and architecture – you are taken on a guided tour in which the Valencia region and its products, from the red prawn of Alicante to Gleva rice D.O. play a part, but are never the only protagonists. The theme of the gourmet menu changes each year to offer an experience with a high emotional content, devoid of arid conceptualism and heightened by moments of pure poetry or stimulating provocation.
If budget – or logistic – restrictions prevent you from going any further afield than Valencia, Dacosta has opened three more venues in the city: the starred El Poblet, the informal Vuelve Carolina and the fantastic Mercat Bar, an international street food experience in the form of tapas, from the Cuba Libre of foie gras to the Pekinese duck taco (gourmet menus priced 15, 22 and 30 Euro).