VALENCIA-BASED celebrity chef Quique Dacosta's London restaurant is set to open on June 7 in the up-market Fitzroy neighbourhood, offering dishes largely based on the region's star recipe: paella. Dacosta, who...
Fallas making you hungry? What to eat in the Valencia region
HOOFING it round the fallas this week in the Valencia region is sure to help you work up an appetite – and luckily, these three Mediterranean provinces are not short of restaurants serving traditional dishes bursting with flavour.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Valencia city itself – the third-largest in Spain and home to over 750,000 people – or in a smaller town in its eponymous province or those of Castellón or Alicante; eating out is never expensive, the food is of excellent quality, and you’ll find everything from a low-key corner bar to a Michelin-starred restaurant within walking distance of the nearest falla monument.
If you’re visiting the area, you’ll want to eat like a local – so here are a few ideas of what you shouldn’t leave the area without trying.
When thinking of Spanish food in general, paella is what tends to spring to mind unless you’re familiar with the huge variety of local and regional dishes that are incredibly diverse and, in some cases, even vary from town to town. But paella was invented in the Valencia region and is, probably, one of its best-known exports, other than oranges. It helps that the provinces of Valencia and Alicante grow their own rice, too – the marshland in Pego (Alicante) and between Xeraco (Valencia) and Valencia city are home to vast swathes of paddy fields.
Rice slow-cooked in a flat pan with saffron to give it the trademark yellow colour, paella started out life as being a medley of whatever locals could find in the fields or the sea at a time when food was scarce and Spain was poor; virtually everything went straight into the pan. For this reason, there are reportedly around 300 recipes for paella – seafood, meat (chicken or beef are often used) with runner beans and white beans, or with chickpeas and vegetables such as turnips, plus the famous paella mixta, a ‘surf-and-turf’ variety – so omnivores, pescatarians and vegetarians can all find a type they’ll enjoy. In restaurants, it normally has to be ordered in advance and for a minimum of two people, and is usually the Valencian answer to a ‘Sunday roast’ – served up at lunchtime when the whole family gathers together at weekends.
Dozens more rice dishes form part of the region’s traditional cuisine and, although to the layperson, they may look and taste like paella, they are not normally referred to as such. Any dish with a name that starts with arroz (‘rice’) on the menu is worth trying: arroz a banda, cooked in fish stock and with the fish on top, using short-grain rice; arroz con costra, rice with meat oven-baked with beaten egg on top; arroz negro, or ‘black rice’, made with squid and cooked in squid ink; arroz al horno, or ‘baked rice’, usually with meat; arroz con bogavante, with lobster; and arroz del senyoret, a seafood variety with the prawns ready-peeled down to the tails to make life easier, are just a handful of the numerous arroz types you can find anywhere in the region.
An alternative, for seafood fans, is fideuà – native to the town of Gandia about an hour south of Valencia, this delectable dish is similar to fish paella but made with either macaroni pasta or with spaghetti chopped up into chunks of a couple of centimetres long.
Horchata and fartones
Refreshing and nourishing, horchata is one of those love-it-or-hate-it drinks – rather like Marmite, it’s impossible to be indifferent about. Although many who claim they hate it find that after giving it a couple of tries, it grows on them and they become hooked. Made with the juice of tiger-nuts, water and sugar, and served ice-cold, horchata (or orxata in valenciano, the regional language) has the consistency of milkshake and tastes like a cross between almond and coconut, and very sweet. Proper home-made stuff is often served on street corners in Valencia city, or you can cheat and buy a litre carton of it from the supermarket for a little more than a euro.
Traditionally, horchata is drunk with fartones, or fartons – bread-like iced-bun fingers which, again, can be bought from supermarkets or, for a more sophisticated variety, at horchata stands on the street – and which are dipped into the milky stuff. The March Fallas fiesta is when horchata and fartones start to hit the shelves in shops and is always a sign spring is nigh.
Freshly-squeezed orange juice
The region’s star crop is what gives the landscape its lush, dark-green hue – orange groves seem to cover every square inch of rural land at sea-level in the three provinces, and November to April is when they’re at their best; sadly, just when you most fancy a long, chilled glass of orange juice, in the baking-hot summer, oranges have gone to seed and are busy ripening in time for the winter harvest. But they’re still pretty abundant and very tangy and juicy at the moment, and delicious when juiced – buy a job-lot to squeeze at home (about one orange per 100ml if you prefer it without the ‘bits’), find it in any bar or café, or visit a Mercadona supermarket where locally-grown oranges are packed into a juicer so you can squeeze your own. For an extra kick, try Agua de Valencia – locally-made cava and fresh orange juice, served ice-cold and much lighter, more refreshing and sophisticated than buck’s fizz.
If you’re in the UK and can’t get to the Valencia region before the end of the orange season, you’ll still be able to indulge in its vitamin-C-filled nectar, since practically all oranges in British supermarkets are from the area.
Fish and seafood casseroles
Various types of these tempting, tasty and filling dishes come to the table in terracotta bowls – suquet de peix, zarzuela de mariscos, and all i pebre being some of the most common. The latter translates as ‘garlic and pepper’, and actually refers to the sauce; in it, you’ll normally find boiled potatoes and monkfish, hake or similar.
The more meaty white fish go into casseroles, whilst seafood varieties typically contain prawns, mussels or squid, or all three. And it’s perfectly socially acceptable – in fact, expected – to mop up the sauce left over with hunks of bread.
Sometimes referred to as espencat, this is a light dish which is ideal if you don’t want to fill up too much and spoil your sightseeing by having to nurse a bloated tummy, but it’s best suited to a ‘salty’ palate.
Aubergines, red peppers, tomatoes and sometimes onions are chopped, oven-roasted and peeled, and mixed with smoked tuna (mojama) and dried salt cod, liberally scattered with olive oil. Some restaurants even serve it on top of pizza.
Buñuelos de calabaza
These deep-fried sugary treats normally make their appearance during the Fallas, and are sold at hot snack stands on the streets – along with churros, or sugary fried doughnut loops, which are sometimes half-chocolate coated, and sometimes come with a cup of chocolate sauce to dip them in.
Buñuelos are doughy lumps made with flour, oil, sugar and cooked pumpkin, rolled into balls, fried and coated in sugar, and sold in paper cones to nibble at as you tour the falla monuments.
Monas de Pascua
It’s still a bit early for these – unlike in 2008 when Easter flowed directly on from Fallas, forcing a regional law to be drafted to prevent supermarkets closing for more than one full day on the trot – but monas, or Easter cakes, are a satisfying and filling calorific indulgence that, if you can find them, you should stock up on. They’re certainly a great excuse to prolong your stay in the Valencia region for after Fallas, anyhow.
Made with a sweet croissant-like bready cake-dough and woven into loops or figure-eights, the traditional versions have hard-boiled eggs in the middle of them; these have gradually evolved, now with the egg shells painted in bright colours and with hundreds-and-thousands scattered on the cake part, or with the hard-boiled egg replaced with a chocolate one with a build-it-yourself toy inside. For total comfort-food Easter face-stuffing, look for the monas that are completely covered in chocolate and hundreds-and-thousands with a chocolate egg in the middle.
Traditionally, parents or other adult family members gave monas to the children at Easter, although priced at between €1.50 and €2 in the supermarket, they are often now just added in bulk to the shopping trolley while stocks last and munched by the grown-ups, too.
Bread and all i oli
Western Mediterranean rather than specifically Valencian, all i oli seems to be present on practically every restaurant table before the food arrives – and is tentatively spreading beyond Spain’s borders, too. Basically it’s garlic mayonnaise, except very, very garlicky indeed, normally homemade and often with minute shreds of the garlic still in it. After ordering but before the dishes reach you, it’s far too easy to become so stuffed on chunks of bread from the basket dunked in all i oli that you’re not hungry once the meal turns up. You can also buy it at the supermarket relatively cheaply, so you can keep some in the fridge and dip into whenever the munchies strike, ripping off hunks of baguette and dipping it in.
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