Visit Valencia for good eats

I feel like a novitiate on my first day at the convent. The local shoppers are jamming the aisles of the Plaza del Mercado, Valencia’s famously huge food market with their buggies, seemingly oblivious to the palace-like interior, domed stained glass ceiling and art nouveau architecture.

And here I am with a group of food writers practically on our knees. For us, this is a shrine, a place of worship.

The Valencia market, one of the largest in Europe, was built in 1928 and has 1,200 food stalls in a building the size of a football stadium.

Vegetables, rice and fruit are heaped in symmetrical mounds. Glistening eels slither on marble tables. Piles of fresh snails in every shape, stripe and colour lie atop beds of ice. Black hoofed hams — the pride of Valencia — hang from steel hooks.

Herding food writers
Our guide, Dora, was intent on steering us through the crowded aisles. But “trying to herd a group of food writers in a market like this is like herding cats,” observed Paula Wolfert, an American famous for her cookbooks on Mediterranean food.

She was right. Before long, they had all scattered — to buy saffron and wild straerries, to sample fresh almonds and green olives, to chat with vendors about air-cured tuna and orange blossom honey.

I alone trailed after Dora, inhaling the fragrance of oranges and clementines and nibbling on a fresh nisperos, a sweet spicy fruit about the size of an apricot. I was new to the wonders of Valencian cuisine, indeed to the city itself.

Sampling Mediterranean diet
Being with food writers, I was not about to tour the city’s cathedrals or museums or wander through parks. We were here to experience the pleasures of the Mediterranean diet.

This traditional diet caught the world’s attention a decade ago when the Harvard School of Public Health declared it to be a role model in preventative medicine. Most important for healthy hearts and cancer protection are the antioxidants abundant in olive oil — a staple of the Spanish cuisine.

And so we ate and then, we ate again—and again—and again. We spent hours in cafés pungent with the aroma of sizzling olive oil; in restaurants where hundreds of paella dishes are cooked up on a Sunday afternoon; in tapas bars where a mind-boggling array of little snacks are washed down with robust local wines; and in horchaterias which take their name from the horchata they serve, a milky tiger nut drink, which tastes like a blend of almond and coconut, and served with plates of sweet breadsticks called fartons.

Next page: Rice defines Valencia

Rice defines Valencia
We sampled the tiger nut treat at Horchata Daniel, one of the city’s oldest horchaterias now run by the third generation of the same family. It’s a large, open-spaced cafeteria with an outdoor patio.

The walls are covered in bright ceramic murals and family photos (a Spanish tradition), including one of the original owner sitting with Salvador Dali. We ventured behind the scenes where 40,000 kilos of tiger nuts (tubers that grow underground) are processed every year for this healthy refreshing drink.

The defining food of Valencia is rice. It was first cultivated by the Moors on the wetlands surrounding the Albufera, a freshwater lake just south of the city.

Most of it ends up as paella, the saffron-laced rice dish that is the most internationally recognized of Spanish dishes. One must not leave this town without tasting authentic paella cooked in the traditional way, outdoors in huge, flat iron pans over an open fire.

Strangely enough, authentic Valencia paella contains no seafood. Instead, it has chicken, rabbit, snails, young beans, tomato, olive oil, salt, saffron and red pepper. There are many varieties, but the essential ingredient is short-grain Valencia rice.

Lake Albufera’s bounty
We gathered to feast on fragrant, golden yellow paella, salted codfish croquettes and sizzling Valencian sausages at Raco de l’Olla, a restaurant perched on the shore of the Albufera.

After an enormous feast, we saw the lake by boat, a large wooden punt driven by a solemn captain. We cruised past flocks of ducks, jumping fish and herons roosting in the riverbanks. A nature lover’s delight–and yet the food writers still talked about paella.

Walked along beach
On our last day in Valencia, I found time to be alone. From the Sidi Saler Hotel, I walked across the sea grasses to a sun-warmed cove protected from the breeze by a ridge of sand dune.

The Mediterranean washed up gently on the lonely stretch of beach. A few children were chasing seagulls at the water’s edge. In the lingering dusk, I raised my glass of chilled manzanilla sherry and toasted Spain’s remarkable food, and vowed to return and discover its other delights.