It’s not hard to eat well in Spain. Even still, reading the Portjam Guide to Valencia reminds me of my own act of folly. Embarrassingly, I was excited to discover an authentic taco in Spain (I was young (ish)!). While I’m ashamed by this admission, it marked the start of one of my favorite obsessions: food. And travel has only expanded my education into the inseparable arenas of food and culture.
So when I returned to Spain in 2013, I knew all about the country’s fascination with jamón, fiercely distinct regional cuisines and of course, the famed dining experiences offered by restaurants like El Bulli. However, it was my first time in Valencia… Don’t worry, I didn’t start looking for tacos! Instead, I took my taste buds to the streets and searched for local, neighborhood flavors. Here’s what I found…
Orange: So you can’t go to Valencia without eating an orange. Sure, the Sumo and blood varieties are trending these days, but Valencia oranges continue to reign supreme in the citrus kingdom. In fact, they are the preferred choice when making OJ. Known for its juicy and sweet taste, a visit to Valencia is not complete until you’ve eaten the fruit that famously bears the city’s name.
Mercado Central: Not only is this juggernaut of a farmer’s market the largest in Spain, but it’s also one of the oldest and largest in all of Europe. Walking through the market is an amazing introduction to Spanish food, culture and architecture. Exotic fruits, vegetables and provisions of all kinds wet my appetite for the amazing meals to come. It also served as an introduction to the ornate, Spanish colonial architecture as the food hall was beautifully embellished with stained glass windows, painted domes and a dizzying mélange of corridors all perfectly framed with ornate beams flying overhead. You won’t have any trouble finding an orange in here. NOTE: If you ask, most vendors will cut your fruit for you too!
Paella – It must be lunchtime… We know that Valencia is the birthplace of paella, but did you know that it’s a lunchtime thing? Locals do not eat paella for dinner, so run if you ever see this dish on a dinner menu.
I found an amazing paella in El Palmar, a teeny, tiny little fishing village about 10 miles outside of central Valencia. Truthfully, my crew and I got lost and were driven to the town by a local. When we arrived, he recommended we dine at Restaurante Casa Ángel. The split-level restaurant actually sits amid a huerta, or fertile area of land where the rice for paella is cultivated – farm to table much? Seated in the home of paella (and quite literally overlooking the rice paddies), I ate the best paella known to man. And I ate it midday, as intended. While there were a few different variations, the paella I at was not inventive or experimental, its magnificence was traditional and simple.
Horchata – This cold drink is mixture of tigernuts, water and sugar. Like coffee in Seattle, this beverage is an essential part of life in Valencia. With countless horchateria’s decorating city streets, locals meet in these cafés for quick stops or longer social gatherings. And locals looking to nibble on something usually opt for fartons. While the name of the pastry might illicit some childish giggles, fartons will capture that same brand of child-like delight as their flakey and sweet finish are commonly paired with horchata.
Another reason to hit up a horchateria is the history of the beverage. Drinking horchata came into fashion way back in the 13th century during the period of muslim presence in Spain, so I think it’s cool to partake is such legendary food traditions.
Festival Food: San José Fallas, or The Bonfires of Saint John is an all-night beach party complete with bonfires and packed picnics! It’s intended to celebrate the summer solstice and ward off evil spirits, but I remember it as the day when all of Valencia spent the night eating and drinking together on a beach. While this celebration happens in many parts of Spain, the biggest parties happen in/around Valencia. Walking around was truly a feast for the eyes. I saw picnic spreads with fanciful arrangements of cured meats, breads, pickled somethings and of course, wine. Young and old, bonfires burned and people carried on throughout the night. The best part? When the fires slowed down, I joined the masses and jumped over the fire 3 times to ward off evil spirits! Note: If you every find yourself in Valencia for this amazing festival, do not arrive empty handed because there may not be any take-away restaurants or supermarkets in the area. I made this mistake and had to find rations at a local convenience store.
Did I wet your appetite? Or miss something delicious you found in Valencia? Let me know in the comments because all I need is one good reason to go back!