Valencia, far beyond 'paella'
This Spanish coastal city is a gastronomic paradise worth to explore.
Last Friday I was dining on a terrace in the neighborhood of El Carmen, in the historic center of Valencia, Spain. I travelled there to cover the disembarkation of the Aquarius, an humanitarian ship with 629 undocumented immigrants, mostly African, rescued in the Mediterranean, onboard. Despite the sad news (The Spanish government authorized the disembarkation of the Aquarius after Italy and France refused, showing the lack of political consensus in the European Union on how to solve the migration crisis) it was a pleasant night, not too hot, not too cold, and in the street there was a certain scent of jasmine. My table companion, a local writer, offered to look at the menu and choose for me: "as a starter, in addition to "croquetas" (croquettes), would you fancy some steamed "clóchinas"?," he asked me.
"Some what?,", I asked, with curiosity. Valencia is world famous for its rice dishes - the famous "paella" has its origin here - but the clóchinas ("clòtxines", in Valencian) were something unknown to me. "They are like the mussels, but smaller ... and better," my friend said, happy to show me the existence of that local shellfish.
Beyond paella, Valencia, is a historical city in the Spanish "Levante" (popular name for the Mediterranean coast, invaded by tourists) with its own culture and language, and an excellent place to eat. Beginning with the clóchinas, a mollusk whose flavor is considered superior to its Galician brother, the mussel, according to the gastronomic experts: "Without doubt the Mediterranean waters, those were the clóchina grows, are more salty and nutritious than those from more open and light seas, and this circumstance makes it so edulis (so eatable, like the word in Latin means), " wrote gastronomic critic Alfredo Argiles in La Vanguardia a decade ago.
Me and my friend sampled a plate of steamed clóchinas, with a fine touch of pepper, garlic and lemon, followed by a tasty grilled squid and ham croquettes ("croquetas de jamón"), a traditional starter in Spain. As dessert, almond and nougat ice cream, traditional Valencian flavors. (Valencia regions is also popular for the "turron" - nougat production).
The next day, it was time for a good rice. I wanted to taste something else than paella, so I was taken to lunch at a restaurant on the outskirts of Valencia, hidden among orange tree fields. In the background you could see the sea and the ugly apartment blocks of the Valencian coast, a direct result of the real estate boom of recent years. But there, in the silent countryside, the fluttering of the flies was the only hindrance when a delicious mushroom rice arrived. The waiter left the "paella" - that is also the name of the traditional frying pan, flat and round, used to make the rice in Valencia) in the center of the table, so each diner could eat directly from there, using their fork. The rice was cooked very "al dente" and smelled of mushrooms and chives. My friend initial's idea was to order "arroz a banda", a kind of rice that is cooked with fish, but when serving it, all the pieces of fish are removed (they are left "a banda"- on the side). But we arrived at the restaurant too late (it was past 3 pm) and the chef, a sixty-something year old woman, tall and with tiny blue eyes, said she had run out of arroz a banda. It was no big deal. The mushroom rice made up for it. When she came to ask how was it, she saw that the pan was almost clean. With the help of a wooden shovel, we scraped the remaining rice stick in the bottom of the pan (the so-called "socarrimat", because its a bit burnt, in my opinion, the best part of any Spanish rice dish).
"Valencia is the only place in Spain where you can still eat a decent rice," Rafa Soto, a publicist from Barcelona, of Valencian origin, told me by phone, after I wrote a message to make him jealous. Valencians in general observe horrified as in the rest of Spain (and the world) restaurants serve all kinds of variants of their paella and their rice dishes. "Paella is not just rice with things", insist the Valencians, when they see an overcooked rice full of "forbidden" ingredients, such as tomato or onion.
When we finished lunch, the restaurant's cook told us that despite being almost summer, it was good time for mushroom rice. "Thanks to the storms of May this year we had a new season of mushrooms," she explained, washing her hands on her apron. I assured her that I had loved it, and that I would come back to taste the rest of the rices in the menu: Artichoke with squid, Iberian pork with vegetables, rabbit with snails, red tuna and green asparagus ... "and that's just the summer menu," said the cook of "La Jara" restaurant. For dessert, I ordered homemade cinnamon and coffee ice cream -delicious-, but when I tasted my friend's choice - toasted almond with "turron", I had to admit his was better.
Before leaving Valencia, I had time to go to the Central Market and taste some salty olives and and a couple of aubergines stuffed with vegetables, a real explosion of flavors from the Valencian "huertos" (orchards") in my mouth. Summer is the best time for aubergines, undoubtedly, the starring vegetable of the Mediterranean.
"I still remember when it was all orchards here," was the phrase I heard most from my Valencian friends, still amazed by the construction bubble in the region in recent decades (spurred by a high dose of corruption), when they showed me the suburbs.
Unfortunately I said goodbye to the Valencian concrete forest without having time to drink a good horchata, the traditional cold drink made with tiger nut ("chufa") which looks like milk. The tigernut is a tubercle with a rough and rounded shape, with a certain earthy color, which has been cultivated for centuries in Valencia and much of sub-Saharan Africa.
In Spain, horchata it is consumed mainly on the east coast - Catalonia, Valencia, Murcia - as a summer drink. You can drink it alone, or accompanied by ice cream. One of my favorite combinations is the so-called "Cuban" (yes, a name with racist connotations), consisting of a ball of chocolate ice cream submerged in a glass of white horchata.
Note: do not confuse Valencian horchata with rice horchata, the traditional Mexican drink, also widespread in other countries of Central America such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.