Puente Del Mar in Valencia, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
The region of Valencia, hugging the eastern Mediterranean coast below Catalonia, is one of Spain’s great garden districts, with a rich alluvial soil that has been intensively cultivated since the beginning of time. Arab farmers, who arrived here in the early Middle Ages, introduced irrigation for intensive cultivation of rice, citrus (lemons and sweet oranges), almonds, and, in the province of Alicante in the south of the region, dates. Today, the three provinces of the region—Valencia, the capitol, Alicante in the South, and Castellón de la Plana, which backs up into the Maeztrazgo mountains on the borders with Aragon—are still known for a lush agriculture, while Valencia city has become one of Spain’s most important ports, now the third largest city in the country after Barcelona and Madrid.
Valencia, the cradle of Spanish rice cultivation, is no longer the dominant producer of the grain (that claim is now contested by Sevilla and Extremadura). Still, long centuries of rice growing, principally in and around the fresh-water Albufera lagoon south of the city, has sealed Valencia’s primacy for rice cookery. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of different ways of preparing traditional short-grain varieties of rice, the most prominent of which is unquestionably that great dish paella valenciana, actually something of a modern invention, or rather evolution. How paella, originally a dish of humble farmers, evolved into the national symbol of Spanish cuisine is a subject for a book if not an encyclopedia. In origin it was a straightforward, flavorful way of making a hasty but tasty lunch out in the fields or along the beaches; today, it’s a feature of the most touristic menus all over Spain, and the Mediterranean. But in its birthplace, it is still worth looking for—especially in humble shacks along the beaches outside Valencia where it’s still cooked, as it should be, over an orange-wood fire and distinctive for its simplicity—chicken, rabbit, snails, and big green beans called garofons. Valencianos don’t call it paella in any case. Instead, it’s an arros, meaning rice—arros de verduras with vegetables, arros negre made with squid and its ink, arros marinera made with seafood, arros abanda in which the rice is served apart, as a separate course, from the fish that has been cooked with it.
And then there’s fideua, the pasta-paella dish, said to have been invented in Gandia, south of Valencia city—an unlikely but captivating dish of short lengths of spaghetti cooked in a fish stock with seafood, just like the original paella.
But Valencia, whether the region or the city, is not just about rice. Magnificent seafood is landed all along the Region’s coast, including superb giant shrimp from Vinarós with their own Denomination of Origin. And citrus—not for nothing is the prime juice orange in the world the Valencia, named for where it originated. Artichokes from Benicarlo in Castellon province, cherries from the Vall de la Gallinera in Alicante province, cured hams and cheeses from the Maeztrazgo, and tomatoes from just about everywhere are all among Valencia’s star products.
Most of these products are on display in Valencia’s great modernist masterpiece, the Mercat Central, an exciting market both for its architectural beauty and for the sumptuous display of all Valencia’s great products, from seafood to fruits to vegetables, meats, snails, and so on.
Iconic Dishes and Products of Valencia
Arroz con costra: a baked rice dish that is finished with a “crust” of egg on top.
Arroz empedrado: a dish from Castellon de la Plana made with white beans, salt cod, and lots of garlic.
Bajoques farcides: sweet peppers stuffed with rice, pork, tomatoes and pimenton, from Alicante.
La pericana: another famous dish from Alicante, made with salt cod, dried peppers, and lots of garlic .
Cocido de pelotas: a typical cocido, but with the addition of meat-stuffed cabbage leaves.
Arroz rosetxat: an oven-baked rice dish, rich with lamb, pork, sausages (especially Valencian blood sausage), and chickpeas, a sumptuous presentation.
All i pebre: a pounded sauce with almonds, garlic, and pimenton in olive oil; the name also refers to eels from the Albufera lagoon, cooked with potatoes in a garlic and paprika sauce, then served with the pounded sauce to accompany.
Horchata: a refreshing summertime drink that has become popular all over Spain, horchata is made from chufas, variously called tiger nuts or earth nuts. Horchata is made like almond milk, by steeping the pounded nuts in water. It is served icy cold and accompanied by crisp, hot fartons, fried pastry strips, to dip in the cold drink.
Turron: Alicante is famous for its turrones, almond-based sweets. turron alicantina is like a nougat with chunks of almonds in a baked honey paste, while turron from Jijona is softer, made from almonds crushed to a paste and mixed with honey. Originally Christmas sweets, these are now available right the year round.