In Valencia, along with the Flamenco, paella is king, all things citrus, fish and sea food galore. You get the idea, this is a land with plentiful options, and the resulting combinations increase exponentially.
Given the bounty that exists due to its location, Valencian cuisine can be said to focus on vegetables and the fruits of the sea. Meat plays second fiddle here, which, if you consider what they had access to prior to industrial transportation, makes sense – Valencia is nestled right up to the sea but as you go inland one quickly finds oneself in mountainous regions that look barren and harsh. The meat, when it enters the recipe equation, is mostly rabbit and goat that pairs well with the other ingredients.
Food wise, what to expect
While no means exhaustive, here is a sample of what one might expect:
Rice is heavily featured on the menu, given that it is grown nearby, and the dishes prepared can be split into two categories, wet rice dishes such as arroz caldoso (a rice stew), el arroz amb fessols i naps, (rice with beans and turnips), or dry rice dishes such as paella.
Fish dishes are popular. Consider for example grilled eel served with a yummy ali-ipebre, a garlic, olive oil and paprika sauce.
Dishes made with oranges are common, with one example being pato a la naranja (duck with orange sauce). The local version of a mimosa is made with cava (Catalonian wine similar to champagne) and called agua de Valencia.
Horchata from tiger nuts is a local specialty. Speaking of nuts, the area around Valencia is known for them, specifically almonds, so consequently it should not be a surprise that turrón was introduced here by the Moors. There’s also the fartons those sweet pastries designed to be dipped in this drink.
Speaking of citrus, candied fruit is very common here. I assume it started as a way to preserve the bounty they get each year, along with the usual suspects of citrus, sweet potatoes and entire apples could be found.
Pestinyos are small, sweet and dry pastries folded in thirds and flavored with orange and aniseed.
Pastissets are pastries with a sweet almond or sweet potato filling, and is thought to be of Arab origin.
Arrop i tallaetes is a dessert with fruit soaked in a sweet syrup made from grape must.
Peladillas (Jordan almonds).
Figues albardaes (fig fritter)
Bunyols, also Arab-inspired pastry, these are fried doughnut like balls covered with sugar, and often includes pumpkin in the dough. On a random side note, the word “doughnut” is trademarked in Spain, so Dunkin Doughnuts is known as Dunkin Coffee there. Same chain, but they were required to change the name. I saw a few of them and thought they were impostors trying to mimic Dunkin Doughnuts until I checked on the story.
Valencia itself seems to be a city of contrasts, or perhaps more accurately a blending of many cultures and ideas. This region got its start when ancient Romans gave plots of land to deserving veterans as gift; calling this area Valentia (the Strong). Centuries could be marked by the strangers that stopped by and for a time make this area home; Goths, Arabs, Castilians, Aragonese, Catalans. Perhaps one visitor whose influence is still felt is the Moors who, with their vast knowledge of agriculture contributed ingenious irrigation systems to support the new crops they introduced: rice, sugar cane, oranges and almonds. Their culinary sensibilities contributed to cooking methods, and their artistic gifts are also found in the architecture.
Today, Valencia is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona. Its old town is breathtaking in its charm. Outside of the old town that city has made a concerted effort to spruce itself up, with a stellar transportation system and some incredibly futuristic cityscape that seems more appropriate in a science fiction movie.
When we visited Valencia, it was icy cold and it was as if the weather was playing tricks on our mind, because the sky was a brilliant blue and the oranges and dates on the trees contrasted beautifully with it. That bitter chill did not stop me from exploring, and discovering a city of amazing contrasts for myself.
Some places that struck me:
Estación del Norte (Train station): As soon as we stepped from the train into the station, I was struck by the beauty of the building. It was built at the turn of the last century in the style of Austrian Art Nouveau.
Cathedral: This cathedral was one of my favorites of all my travels. There was something about its mostly monotone colored interior that really appealed to me. Apparently this place which was built around 1260. For the last millennium,this location has served as the meeting place for the Water Tribunal to settle disputes between the farmers over irrigation. Don’t believe me? Stop by the Gothic Puerta de los Apostoles at noon on Thursdays and see for yourself.
Mercado Central (food market) : A huge beautiful cavernous building filled with serious food mongers offering up local delicacies of all sorts.
While the physical space may have changed, the food market here goes back at least 650 years, and is called the Tira de contar. The name speaks to the farmers’ practice of setting up long rows (tira) of stalls to sell their produce. The food was sold by count (contar) and not weight.
Ciutat de les Arts i de les Ciències (The City of Arts & Sciences) This city is constructed around a lake and was largely designed by a local architect. It is a beautiful and impressive area, however the day we visited it was deserted and which added an air of surreality.
I saw a lot of symbols and coats of arms with bats, in fact many of the key chains and other souvenirs were bat shaped. I had to wait until I got home to satisfy my curiosity, and I found that bats are a heraldic symbol for Valencia and also other cities in Spain. The use of the bat is most prevalent in territories of the Crown of Aragon. One source suggests that this may be because a bat intervened during a crucial battle against the Saracens and allowed the King of Aragon to win Valencia for his kingdom. A nice story, but earlier documents indicate that the winged creature was a swallow and not a bat. A squadron of the royal air force even adopted a bat with the motto “Per Noctem Volamus” (we fly through the night).
If you are traveling to Spain, and have the time, Valencia is worth a detour. A few days allows you to comfortably investigate this city. We spent three days here, and that was plenty of time, with the food alone reason enough to go. I for one am delighted to say I’ve had paella in the City that created it.