This article is presented to you by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Poised along the gleaming turquoise coastline of the Mediterranean, the Valencia region stretches as a slender strip on Spain’s eastern coastline. It enjoys a perpetual blanket of sunshine and warmth all year round, with relatively mild winters and sweltering, occasionally humid, summers. Light sea breezes are the norm, and rainfall is a rarity. Not far from the bustling city of Valencia, you’ll find the verdant expanses of Albufera Natural Park. Christened as ‘the lake’ by Spain’s Moorish rulers in medieval times, the park’s freshwater lagoon is replenished by the Turia and Júcar rivers, nestling amidst forests, wetlands, and sprawling rice fields.
This fertile land nurtures the cultivation of paella rice and also marks the birthplace of the famous dish, traditionally a meal enjoyed by shepherds and land workers. But the Valencia region’s agricultural bounty doesn’t end with rice. Its river systems, rich soil, and humidity combine to support a vast array of fruits and vegetables. The region’s legendary oranges and other citrus fruits share the limelight with olives, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and plump garrofón (a variety of butter bean). Its coastal position also serves up a generous array of seafood and fish, with prawns, mussels, eels, and cod among the delicacies.
The Moorish influence is still evident in the region’s use of spices like saffron, lending a vibrant orange tint and distinct flavor to culinary creations. Another local staple, pimentón — Spanish paprika — is derived from dried peppers often smoked over an oak fire. Paella skillfully merges these spices with the finest regional produce. While celebrated as Spain’s national dish, paella is quintessentially Valencian, with several distinct variations. The classic Paella Valenciana is a crowd-pleaser, but seafood enthusiasts will undoubtedly savor the arroz del senyoret, a rich medley of squid, prawns, mussels, and rice cooked in a hearty stock.
Arrocerias, the local rice eateries, boast spacious worktops designed to accommodate the large pans required to prepare paella. Some chefs prefer cooking over vast gas burners, while others opt for the smoky accent imparted by fires made from sarmiento (vine shoot cuttings). An absolute treat to the palate.
The book, Paella, The Original One-Pan Dish: Over 50 Recipes for the Spanish Classic by Omar Allibhoy, is available via Quadrille (£18).
Omar Allibhoy is a respected name in Spanish cuisine, being the founder of Tapas Revolution restaurants and the author of the book Paella.
- Paella Valenciana
This aromatic, saffron-infused rice dish holds an almost religious significance for the Valencianos (Valencia natives). Debates over its proper preparation are common, but the consensus points towards chicken, rabbit, runner beans, and garrofónes, all simmered with spiced rice. It is traditionally served with just a slice of lemon.
- All i pebre de anguila
A visit to any Valencian fishmonger will reveal a tank filled with eels, the star ingredient in this traditional stew. The dish also boasts an abundance of potatoes, thickened with a rich paste of hazelnuts and fried bread.
While often found in paella restaurants, this dish distinguishes itself by substituting thin pasta strands for rice. The pasta is initially fried to preserve some crunch after cooking, and the dish typically showcases seafood.
The sweetness of Valencia oranges is unparalleled. They are best savored freshly juiced, but also grace a range of desserts from cakes to sorbets.
This article appeared in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Valencia Cuisine
What is the climate like in the Valencia region?
The Valencia region, located along Spain’s eastern coast, enjoys a warm, sunny climate throughout the year. Winters are typically mild, and summers can be hot and at times humid. Light sea breezes are common, and rainfall is relatively scarce.
What are some of the main agricultural products of Valencia?
Valencia is rich in fruit and vegetables due to its river systems, fertile soil, and humidity. The region is particularly famous for its oranges and other citrus fruits, but you’ll also find olives, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and plump garrofón (a type of butter bean) being cultivated here. Additionally, it’s where paella rice is grown.
What is the speciality dish of Valencia?
Paella is considered the speciality dish of Valencia. It comes in many versions, including the classic Paella Valenciana and the seafood-based arroz del senyoret. Paella blends local spices and produce, showcasing the best of Valencia’s rich agriculture and seafood.
Who is Omar Allibhoy?
Omar Allibhoy is the founder of Tapas Revolution restaurants and the author of the book “Paella, The Original One-Pan Dish: Over 50 Recipes for the Spanish Classic.”
What are some must-try dishes in Valencia?
Some must-try dishes in Valencia include Paella Valenciana, a saffron-infused rice dish with chicken, rabbit, runner beans, and garrofónes; All i pebre de anguila, a traditional eel stew with potatoes, thickened with a paste of hazelnuts and fried bread; and Fideuà, a pasta dish often found in paella restaurants that typically showcases seafood.
How are Valencia oranges used?
Valencia oranges, known for their unparalleled sweetness, are best enjoyed when freshly juiced. They also feature prominently in a range of desserts, including cakes and sorbets.