Nudging up against the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, the Valencia region is a long strip of land along Spain’s east coast, blessed with a warm, sunny climate throughout the year. Winters are mild and summers hot — even humid at times — with the occasional light sea breeze, and rain is scarce. Close to the city of Valencia lies Albufera Natural Park. Given its name (meaning ‘the lake’) by Spain’s Moorish rulers in medieval times, the park’s freshwater lagoon is fed by the rivers Turia and Júcar, and surrounded by woods, wetlands and rice fields.
Paella rice is grown here and it’s also where the dish originated, as a meal for shepherds and those working the land. But it’s not just rice that grows in Valencia. Its rivers, fertile soil and humidity mean the region is rich in fruit and vegetables. It’s famed for its oranges and other citrus, but you’ll also find olives, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and plump garrofón (a type of butter bean). And, thanks to its coastal location, the region also has plenty of great seafood and fish, including prawns, mussels, eels and cod.
The Moors brought with them spices such as saffron, which imparts a beautiful orange hue and unique flavour to any dish. Another local favourite, pimentón — Spanish paprika — is produced using dried peppers that are often smoked over an oak fire. Paella combines these spices with the best local produce, and while it’s considered Spain’s national dish, it’s a speciality of Valencia, with many different versions. Paella Valenciana is the classic, but if it’s seafood you want, arroz del senyoret is king, featuring squid, prawns, mussels and rice cooked in a rich stock.
Arrocerias, or rice restaurants, have specially built worktops big enough to hold the pans needed to cook paella, and while some cook the dish over large gas burners, others do so over fires made up of sarmiento — vine shoot cuttings — which give the paella an extra smoky edge. Delicious.
Paella, The Original One-Pan Dish: Over 50 Recipes for the Spanish Classic by Omar Allibhoy, is published by Quadrille (£18).
1. Paella Valenciana
This saffron-infused rice dish is like a religion for Valencianos (people from Valencia). It’s not unusual to witness full-on arguments over how to make it, but the key ingredients include chicken, rabbit, runner beans and garrofónes, all cooked with spiced rice. The only accompaniment it is served with is a wedge of lemon.
2. All i pebre de anguila
Visit any fishmonger in Valencia and they’ll have a tank of eels — the central ingredient of this traditional stew. Also featuring plenty of potatoes, it’s thickened with a paste of hazelnuts and fried bread.
Although commonly served in paella restaurants, this dish stands out from others as it’s made with thin strands of pasta rather than rice. The pasta is fried first so that it retains some crispiness after it’s been cooked, and more often than not, the dish will feature seafood.
Valencia oranges are the sweetest you’ll ever try. They’re best enjoyed juiced but also feature in a range of desserts including cakes and sorbets.
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