Though the city has long been overshadowed by its bigger, more cosmopolitan sisters—Barcelona and Madrid—tourism in Valencia is growing and food tours are popping up all over town as more hungry visitors come to try the local flavours.
Paella valenciana, of course, is at the top of the list of things to try. But the region’s cuisine includes countless lesser-known dishes, like arroz al horno (meaning rice cooked in the oven) cooked with sausage and chickpeas, or titaina, a fishermens’ tapa of blue tuna, red peppers and pine nuts. Previously unknown, this kind of traditional Valencian food is slowly becoming a draw for curious foodie travellers.
Most of the buzz is centered around the city’s increasing number of high-end contemporary restaurants. One of the city’s big names is Quique Dacosta, chef-owner of El Poblet, a one-Michelin-star restaurant. Another local chef, Ricard Camarena, has been a household name in Valencia for a decade and his cooking is now impressing critics from far and wide.
However, you don’t need to go high-end to eat well in Valencia. The humblest local tapas bars and home cooks know the importance of quality ingredients and traditional methods as well as any top restaurateur, and they all get their produce from the city’s thriving local food markets. Large supermarkets, like fast food chains, are scarce here.
At the city’s vast art nouveau food palace, the Central Market, shoppers stock up on local shellfish, jamón serrano, baguettes, snails, oranges, almonds and much more from the 1,000 stalls beneath the grand domed ceiling.
It’s easy to see why Valencian people are so proud of their culinary traditions. Spend any length of time in the region and you’ll notice that people have their own way of eating, and even thinking about food.
Some say that almuerzo, the Valencia region’s hefty mid-morning snack, is like a religion. Even the busiest office worker finds fifteen minutes to dash out for a hot wedge of tortilla and a café cortado. Those with a bit more time like to linger over a baguette with a beer or brandy-spiked coffee.
This is only one example of the many food rituals observed by Valencians, who generally eat or drink particular things at certain times of day (paella, for example, is only to be eaten at lunchtime) and at certain times of year. Seasonal eating is a lifelong habit.
Whatever you do, don’t mess with the time-tested rituals or the recipes. Jamie Oliver once famously put chorizo in a paella recipe and incurred the wrath of the entire region—and the country! As my Valencian flatmate likes to say, “there’s only one way to make a real paella. Everything else is just arroz con cosas (rice with things in it).”
Now that the secret’s out, we recommend that you get to Valencia before the crowds descend. Try the local food—and the locals’ way of thinking about it—for yourself and you may never eat the same way again.