How to explore the rich culinary heritage of Valencia

With a unique microclimate and fertile soil, it’s no wonder this coastal Spanish city has a growing gastronomic scene built on the back of its paella heritage.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Ricard Camarena is sniffing a boletus mushroom, turning the fat, fresh fungus otherwise known as a penny bun or cep in his hand. “This is the texture I need. Not too hard, yet not too soft. We eat it raw, sliced on a mandolin.”

One of Spain’s best chefs — entirely self-taught, he won a second Michelin star for his Ricard Camarena Restaurant in November 2018 — he’s in his element here in Valencia’s Central Market, where stallholders grin as he approaches. We pause to ogle some fat Valencia tomatoes, local lobster and langoustine. Then Ricard grabs a handful of chufas — tiger nuts — used to make the Valencian milk-like iced drink, horchata. “This is a food market,” he says. “Not a gastronomy market. This is where people come to buy the best local produce; some come here every single day.”

Valencia’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination means its gastronomic scene is excelling, Ricard believes. “We’re close to the sea, the land is very fertile, the weather is good, and the cooks are very talented.” At Paco Solaz, one of the stalls, he asks to taste some cheese. “Valencia is famous for fresh cheeses, not cured ones,” he explains. “But my personal favourite is the Espadán de Los Corrales, a goat’s cheese.” Made with raw milk in the Sierra de Espadán north of the city, it has a strong smell and a tangy taste, and melts in the mouth with a creamy, slightly crumbly texture.

We meander on, calling into Central Bar — another of Ricard’s enterprises — located in the middle of the market. In the tiny tiled space we eat sweet little anchovies fried in batter and la titaina, a Valencian speciality made from aubergine, red and green pepper, tomato, pine nuts and fresh or salted tuna. Ricard orders plate upon plate. But one of the most popular tapas in his hometown is, for reasons Ricard has no idea, a Russian salad. I tell him I’m happiest in this kind of place, where old men sit drinking beer and people stop to chat. “So am I,” he laughs. This is the casual Camarena, in jeans, trainers and sleeveless jacket.

When I see him later, he’s in chef whites at Ricard Camarena Restaurant, which is housed in a former hydraulic pump factory. It’s a modernist cavern, seating an average of just 35 people. Ricard invites guests to a worktable at the centre of the restaurant, entreating them to try various tiny vegetables (the baby cucumber I eat is sweet and intensely flavoured) and to understand a little more about his cooking.

“We have our own farm. Everything is organic and we only use local varieties,” he explains. “This allows us to use the shape and size we want. Every day we have fresh produce from the farm. And, of course, lots of our products are from the sea. I really love vegetables — combine size, variety and technique, and you get an elaborate result.”

There’s an onion that’s been roasted in the oven, the charred layers peeled and served with burnt butter and Ricard’s own five-year-old anchovy essence he calls Letern: Umami de Mar. “This is my salt,” he says. “It’s the umami of the sea and has everything the sea contains: salt, iodine, oxide and the salting of fish over time.”

Food from the fields

In the heart of the old town, Colmado LaLola is a gorgeous shop and tiny cafe/bar, just by the 14th-century bell tower known as El Miguelete. It’s here I meet gregarious owner Jesús Ortega and his dog Rubio (Blondie). He’s bursting with pleasure as he talks about Valencia’s produce, which thrives in a microclimate shaped by Valencia’s position between the mountains and the sea. “These are ortiga de mar,” he says, holding a bag full of soft sea anemones, beautiful lilac-tinged plants that will be deep fried. He brings grilled rovellons (wild mushrooms known as saffron milk caps in English), sweet tomatoes dressed simply in olive oil, and Les Perles de Valencia, locally grown oysters. Jesús’s take on patatas bravas — squares of potato, crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, with a sauce made from oil, chickpea flour, eggs, garlic and smoked paprika in the centre — is the potato dish of dreams.

A few minutes round the corner is the fabulous Café de Las Horas, where eccentric owner Marc Insanally presents a jug of the local speciality agua de Valencia, which is made from orange juice, cava, vodka and orange liqueur. “We have people complaining this cocktail isn’t very strong, because it tastes like a lovely, only slightly alcoholic orange juice,” he says. “And then they stand up.” Marc — from British Guiana via London — opened the cafe in 1994, modelling it on a tertulia, a literary cafe, serving teas, cocktails and tapas in an over-the-top rococo glory of a room.

Of course, the dish Valencia is most famous for, the one it gave birth to, is paella — the authentic version often bearing no resemblance to the mushy rice and seafood mess so frequently found elsewhere. When the Moors first came to the area in 711, they called it Albufera (‘little sea’). Here, they sowed the rich coastal wetlands with rice and slowly, paella emerged from the land. It was created to feed those working there, using rice and anything else that could be found — this meant snails, rabbit, beans, tomatoes and duck. Its name comes from the round, wide metal vessel it’s cooked in: a paella.

When I meet Toni Montoliu at his farm four miles from the city, he’s wearing traditional Valencian country dress: pin-striped trousers, a scarf wound round the belly (in order to protect the back when stooping in the fields) and a black beret. He shows me the vast paella pans set over fires of orange wood and old vines. “It’s important to crisp the meat and the beans, then the liquid is added and cooked for 45 minutes,” he says. “So, let’s go see my farm.”

Aged 65, he makes light work of a ladder and is up on a corrugated iron roof where hundreds of pumpkins have been laid out in the sun. “Everything in my paella is grown in my fields, or reared here. And it’s all organic,” he says. “Chicken, rabbit, duck, white beans, butter, tomato, snails, sweet paprika, saffron, rosemary, oil and bomba rice. The rice has to be round so it doesn’t get overcooked.”

Paella is only eaten at lunchtime in Valencia, and on Sundays it’s a huge family affair. Guests gather outside under shade eating the farm’s peanuts and lupin beans and drinking cold beer. Toni lowers his ear to the paella pan and listens. A few minutes more, he says. When he lowers his ear again he hears the crackling sound he’s looking for and there’s a toasty smell in the air: it’s ready.

Everyone moves inside around long, large tables. The grains of rice are fat and rich with flavour, the meat and beans tender. Toni hovers around the tables, checking everyone is happy and notices I haven’t got any socarrat — the crunchy crust that forms at the bottom of the pan. He returns with some. “People fight over this,” he says.

I ask him how I can try to make the best paella when I return home, given I don’t have a farm or a firepit. He pours a glass of Valencian sweet wine and sits down to tell me. “Paella isn’t a science,” he says. “Paella is a process — like you’re making love. Little by little, slow and with passion.”

Three restaurants to try in Valencia

1. Restaurant Ricard Camarena
Intensely flavoured stocks and sauces form the backbone of many dishes on a menu that varies all year to reflect the ever-changing produce, much of which grown on the restaurant’s farm. Part of the experience here involves Camarena showing guests raw ingredients and preparing amuse bouche in front of them, and then, at the table, dishes can include: shrimp, pickled peas and strawberries; and marinated sea bass topped with a caviar cream and eggs. Lunch costs around £59 per person and the Ricard Camarena menu, including ‘prelude’ appetizers and 10 courses, is around £134.

2. Trencadish  
Located across two levels of a 17th-century building, this restaurant in the old town specialises in rice and fish dishes. The well-priced set menus are either for sharing or offering a ‘tasting’ experience. Plates change almost daily according to what’s in season, but can include cod fritters, breadsticks with Iberian ham, seafood rice, entrecote or sea bream. A dessert highlight is torrita de horchata (a milky, ice-cold Valencian beverage made with tiger nuts) served with honey ice cream. A three-course lunch menu costs around £15.50 per person and a seven-course tasting menu is around £30. 

3. Colmado LaLola
This atmospheric shop-meets-restaurant has Valencian tiles on the walls and a selection of the city’s finest produce lining the shelves and stacked in glass fridges. Iberian ham is carved to order, while hot and cold tapas can include Valencian tomatoes with mojama (dried tuna belly) and capers, breadsticks with smoked or salted fish, potato and ham tortilla, croquettes and scrambled eggs with truffles and sirloin tips, but the patatas bravas is an absolute showstopper. A selection of tapas is around £12 per person.

Five must-try Valencian flavours

1. Paella: named after the metal dish in which it’s cooked, Spain’s national dish started as field food, made from rice and wild country produce such as beans and snail.

2. Rosquilletas: breadsticks made from flour, yeast, salt, oil and water, often served with ham or cheese.

3. Horchata: an ice-cold, milk-like drink made from tiger nuts, sugar and water.

4. Oranges: these sweet citrus are grown in orchards surrounding the city and are a key component of the local tipple, agua de Valencia.

5. Esmorzaret: Valencians relishes this mid-morning snack so much it’s almost sacred. It’s often a bocadillo (sandwich), sometimes accompanied by a small beer.

How to do it

A standard double room at Hotel Marqués House costs from £94 per night, room only. EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Valencia from £45 per person, return without hand luggage.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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