Every visitor to Spain arrives hungry for paella, and Valencia is the best place to try it. This region proudly declares itself the original home of paella. The Valencian recipe calls for rabbit, chicken, vegetables and – sometimes – snails. The final result is more golden brown than bright yellow, and it isn’t normally served with lemon, peas, chorizo or anything else we might have seen elsewhere. In fact, dishes deviating from the original recipe and cooking methods, yet daring to call themselves paella, are often dismissed as arroz con cosas, or “rice with things”. The traditional dish, eaten by Valencian families every Sunday, is said to have been invented in La Albufera, a national park just ten kilometres from the city. A day trip here is the perfect chance to try paella at one of many specialist restaurants like Restaurant Mateu. Or head to the seafront and visit the Casa Carmela restaurant, where you can see the spectacular sight of the chefs in action, cooking up to eight huge paellas simultaneously over firewood. Reservations are essential.
The largest covered food market in Europe, this is a paradise for food lovers set in a stunning Art Nouveau building. You’ll find endless rows of hanging jamons, a whole ocean of fresh seafood, countless bakeries and fruit stalls, as well as more specialist shops selling everything from chocolate to craft beer. Despite its fame, it hasn’t been given over to tourism; most of the shoppers here are local, most of the prices are reasonable, the quality of the produce is great and the market’s management has so far resisted the trend of converting shopping space into tourist-oriented bars and cafés, as seen at markets elsewhere in Spain. There’s just one cafe in the market, with excellent tapas, coffee, beer and wine – and often a long wait for the limited seating. The market is in the Ciutat Vella (Old City) just a short walk from the Cathedral area.
What’s a tiger nut, and how do you milk one? They’re commonly found in the huerta, a large green belt of agricultural land surrounding Valencia. They were brought to Spain in the 13th century by the Arabs, who used it to make chufa milk; the base for today’s horchata, or orxata de chufas. The nuts are dried, soaked, crushed and sweetened with sugar and lemon rind, cinnamon or other flavourings. The resulting drink is sweet, refreshing, and rich in nutrients, served cold and usually consumed in the warmer months, accompanied by local pastries called fartons. Try it at any one of the many horchaterias in the Ciutat Vella, including the famous Horchateria de Santa Catalina, or Chocolates Valor on the Plaza de la Reina.
No visit to Spain would be complete without sampling some tapas with a few glasses of wine or beer. In Valencia you’ll find everything from cod croquettes to prawns in garlic oil or the famous Spanish tortilla. Anchovies are another delicacy found in the old fisherman’s district of El Cabanyal, where you’ll find some fantastic tapas restaurants specialising in seafood. Casa Montaña, for example, is one of the oldest in the city and much loved by locals. A more central spot is Sidreria El Molinon, with a cosy dark wood interior and original tapas creations that include a curious blue cheese and cider paté, fantastic on a piece of crusty baguette.
And last but not least, make sure you try the very typical Valencian cocktail, Agua de Valencia. It’s made from orange juice, Cava, sugar and various different liquors. The recipe and the quantities of the different ingredients vary from place to place, and are even a closely guarded secret in some establishments. You’ll find it at almost any bar in the city, but one popular spot is Cafe de las Horas in the central neighbourhood of El Carmen.