By Dina Honke
… THAT MAKES YOU FALL IN LOVE
Perhaps it’s the people, the language, the music, the food or the vibrancy that’s in the air, or all of these things combined but it definitely swept me off my feet. I quite simply fell in love. We travelled around Spain for a few months, staying here and there, immersing ourselves in local culture as much as we could. We saw locals eating their iconic “pan con tomate” with their morning coffee, drinking a glass (or more) of vermut before lunch and enjoying their tapas before settling for a late-night dinner at a busy restaurant.
We saw the streets empty for an afternoon siesta and later filled with beautifully dressed families on an early evening stroll participating in the churros and chocolate ritual. We visited markets, historical sites, attended concerts and operas and adapted to local customs and rhythms the best we could. We have seen the site of the Inquisition, the burial place of kings and queens and the rising of political discontent in Catalunia. You have to be there to understand, to be touched by it all.
We arrived in Barcelona by TGV train from Paris and had a short stay en-route to other destinations, from the orange scented Costa del Azhar, through the olive groves of Andalucia, to the ritz and glitz of the Costa del Sol and the historic cities strewn along the interior of this ancient land.
VALENCIA, AMOR A PRIMERA VISTA
First on our stop was Valencia and the city took me by surprise. I knew it was the third largest city in Spain and expected it to be beautiful but did not anticipate the incredible charm that emanates from every corner. The coastline here is known as Costa del Azahar, meaning orange blossom coast. Orange trees laden with oranges line the city’s large avenues and narrow ancient side streets. There is a local saying that in April, when the orange trees are blooming, the fragrance of orange blossoms wafts through the city streets like perfume off a beautiful woman.
The old city is the heart of Valencia and where we spent most of our time. The churches, squares and monuments are breathtaking in their dignified beauty. The side streets, in particular Calle Cavalier, are charming and elegant with old mansions now converted into housings. One tapas bar after another offers fabulous tapas any time of the day and outdoor restaurants have their tables set in the sunny squares.
Valencia has a host of museums, galleries and cathedrals to visit, shedding light on the history of this ancient seaside city. History weaves its way through the old structures and envelops you in their mysteries. If you are future oriented, the Ciudad de las Artes y la Ciencias (City of Arts and Science) features incredible futuristic architecture the Spanish are famous for, as well as science exhibitions and modern art installations. In Valencia, past, present and future seamlessly intertwine in a magical way.
Valencia is a wonderful destination for food-focused travellers, a category to which I belong. Watching a culture though its cuisine is very revealing and my first destination when arriving in a new place is the local market. Valencia’s Mercado Central is a beautiful market in an impressive architectural design and modern building that Valencianos are very proud of. There are markets in every neighbourhood but this one attracts people from all over the city.
Entering the Mercado, your senses are pleasantly assaulted by the sights and sounds of this busy emporium. The abundance of seasonal produce, seafood, butcheries, food counters and small shops is overwhelming at first. I could have stayed there all day, and kind of did, returning often during our stay.
I loved sitting at the counter at one of the market’s fabulous cafés (try Retrogusto) and sip a café bombón, a Valencian specialty made by pouring sweetened condensed milk into a glass tumbler and topping it with strong espresso. The condensed milk creates a thick white layer at the bottom and the strong espresso settles on top.
I tasted olive oil made from olives of a thousand-year-old tree, aged sherry vinegars from Cadiz with Denominacion de Origen (protected designation), I saw specialty food items from the Spanish molecular gastronomy cuisine and even bought paella pans to bring back home. A visit to the Mercado Central is a good starting place for exploring the Valencia food scene and affords a glimpse into local culture that you otherwise would surely miss.
The iconic food of Valencia undoubtedly is the Paella Valenciana. This seemingly simple dish of rice and protein has its own ritual among locals and has been entrenched in their culture for generations. However, Valencianos do not tend to make paella at home. Every Sunday before lunch, beautifully dressed locals begin a stroll along the beautifully paved promenade on the beach and as if on cue they all disappear by 2:00 pm, retreating into the dozens of restaurants lining the promenade for a Sunday lunch of paella and jugs of sangria.
We joined the ritual and stopped for lunch at the famed La Pepica restaurant at the edge of the promenade, known among locals and tourists alike for its traditional “best paella in Valencia”. Hemingway frequented this establishment after bullfights, among other luminaries over the years. Tables around us were filled with families, young and old side by side, their tables laden with pans of paellas. Classic Paella Valenciana is made with chicken or rabbit but there were plenty of seafood paella being served in large paella pans expertly carried by waiters to waiting tables.
If you order a paella be sure it comes with a crispy, caramelized bottom layer of rice called socarrat. The Spanish treasure these crispy rice bits and so should you. Paella was not the only thing served for Sunday lunch. First course of fried fish or shellfish was de rigueur, and plates upon plates of tapas with sangria or beer were shared among the families at the tables. This ritual takes place every Sunday and if you visit the area, it’s a not to be missed experience.
THE ART OF TAPAS
One of the charms of España is the culture of tapas. The word tapa means “to top” and the tradition started accidentally when vendors used a piece of bread to cover the customer’s drinks, so that flying insects don’t drown in the wine. Customers were eating the bread and vendors began to top it with thin slices of ham or cheese to make it more palatable for the customers who were also drinking more with small bites of salty food.
As time went on other tidbits were added and Spanish tapas were born. It became part of the culture to have a bite of this or that with a glass of wine or sherry in the bars. Today there are designated tapas zones in the larger cities and in every community, however small, tapas bars are lined along the streets and promenades.
I loved the tapas places in Valencia scattered around the Mercado Central. Trays covered with various tapas were set on glass shelves and people sitting or standing at the counter were served small portions of whatever tapas they pointed to. A wide selection of seafood, anchovies, mussels, artichokes, peppers, asparagus and whatever else was in season was offered.
Tapas are not all small bites and can take the form of lunch size dishes filled with patata bravas, Russian salad, roasted peppers and more. Artichokes were probably my favorite tapa and they were served in various ways, from boiled to grilled to fried, whole, sliced, halved or quartered. Tapas bars are seen in every corner, open late into the night serving the “tapas crawl” clientele. Spanish don’t “go” for tapas, they “do” tapas and have elevated this ritual to an art form.
One cannot speak of Valencia without mentioning the oranges. Valencia is the land of oranges and its oranges rival only the ones from Jaffa in Israel (in my not too humble opinion). Driving through the countryside orange groves line both sides of the roads, interrupted only by olive groves and field upon field of artichokes, also in season at the time. The Valencia oranges are thin skinned, juicy and sweet.
They are delicious, fresh or juiced and can also enhance many dishes. Combined with Spanish Moscatel, orange marmalade and cinnamon they make a wonderful, simple dessert. Orange juice is also the key ingredient in the Agua de Valencia, a traditional drink made with equal amounts of freshly squeezed orange juice and cava (Spanish champagne) mixed with vodka and gin to create a rather potent but refreshing drink served anywhere in town. Oranges also feature prominently in the iconic Spanish sangria and we indulged in a jug of this drink often, of course in a conscientious effort to support the Valencia orange industry.
I could go on and tell you about many other Valencian specialties, from the sweet fritters rolled in sugar they call bunyoles, the churros they dip in chocolate, the white horchata drink made with tiger nuts, the Iberico ham that is prized all over the world and the various rice and vegetables dishes that are traditional specialties of Valencian cooks. So many dishes, so little time.
From Valencia we also explored the Costa Bianca, a few hours to the south along the Spanish Mediterranean. This eastern coast of Spain is a charming stretch of beaches and resort towns that seemingly cater mainly to European vacationers. Altea, Calpe, Alicante and Guardamar stand out as some of the more appealing towns to visit but there are several other small and charming communities all over.
Each town has a long promenade on the beach lined with palm trees, restaurants and shops. One of the most celebrated tapa bars in Spain, Manolin, is located in Alicante. I have heard that Feran Adria and Joel Robichon called it the best tapas bar in Spain and along the walls of the restaurant you see pictures and art by celebrities who have visited the place, including these two world famous chefs.
All good things must come to an end, said someone. At some point our stay in Valencia came to an end. We bade farewell to Valencia and headed inland to Andalucia and our next destination, Sevilla. Spain left its mark on my heart and mind, let alone my palate. I look forward to going back and exploring more of this beautiful land, its people and its culture, and of course its food.