Valencia food & drink

Food

The abundant Mediterranean seafood, the rich agricultural produce of the coastal plains and the wild game from the mountains and the high Sierra: this powerful triad are the vital ingredients of the widely diverse Valencian cuisine. Stir in three millennia of invasion and occupation, Phoenicians and Greeks, Romans and Arabs, and what do you get? A complex and delicious cuisine that’s one of the richest in the Mediterranean.
As you travel between provinces – even as you travel between villages – you’ll discover that each one has its own speciality, from the tasty embutidos (charcuterie) in the high country, to the paellas and other rice dishes close to the coast.
Moors from North Africa occupied Valencia for five centuries, bringing with them the art of rice cultivation. Rice paddies are still found all along the coast, their introduction is perhaps one of the most enduring influences on the region’s gastronomy. Today rice is the mainstay of Valencia's coastal cuisine.

The famous Valencian paella was once a peasant dish – and was probably prepared here for the first time over a thousand years ago. Its recipe chopped and changed depending on seasonal availability, but nowadays the authentic “paella valenciana” is made up of chicken, rabbit and vegetables. But it’s far from the only rice dish in the region. Valencianos usually say that there is a different rice recipe for every day of the year.

In the Alicante province, the fideuá, a form of noodle, is used instead of rice. It’s so popular that towns along the coast hold competitions to see who can produce the most flavoursome dish.

Further inland, in the foothills and the mountains, the olla – or stew – is one of the most common forms of preparing food. Cooked slowly in a large ceramic pot the rich stew, which can include beef, pork, lamb or game, makes a sustaining meal that's perfect for a cool day in winter.

Salted cod, or Bacalao, is a staple in many inland areas. Before refrigeration, it was impossible to get fresh fish in these areas. Step forward salted fish, which lasted a good deal longer. Cooks just needed to soak it well to remove the salt, and flake it into dishes to add a distinctive flavour.

Who doesn’t love a good sausage? The longanizas, produced in the mountain areas of Valencia have achieved local fame. Flavoured with wild herbs, from fennel to rosemary and thyme their unique taste makes them much in demand everywhere in Valencia, from simple bars and cafes to top class restaurants.
Valencia’s almonds are rated amongst the best in the world. They’re used in many desserts, lots of which date back to the Arab era. Bakeries across the region prepare cakes, tarts, biscuits and confectionery – many of which are only available at certain times of the year. If you see them, snap them up.
Alicante in particular is famous for the quality of its desserts. Sweet pastissets – sugared biscuits – are thought to have been introduced by Mallorcan settlers in the 16th century. Then there’s turron, a nougat of almonds and honey, a succulent treat usually served at Christmas – but far too tasty to just be left to December.
The Arab era also brought dates palms to Valencia, planting a massive date plantation in the middle of the city of Elche in the 10th century that remains to this day – and now has a UNESCO listing. Today you'll still find dates cropping up in all sorts of sweet dishes.

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Drink

Vines have been cultivated in Valencia since Neolithic times. Over the centuries, the process of wine making, and the cultivation of grapes has changed and been refined by waves of new settlers. The result? Today, the region produces some of the best wines of the Iberian peninsula.

There are three Denominations of Origin (D.O.) in the region of Valencia: Alicante, Utiel-Requena and Valencia. The D.O. of Alicante is famous for its sweet muscatel dessert wines and in particular, a white wine with a high alcohol content called Fondillón. In the D.O. Utiel-Requena, tempranillo, cabernet-sauvignon and merlot grapes are grown in abundance. The red bobal grape is the star of the show – and much in demand by French winemakers.
But roll the wine barrels of wine aside: no survey of the Valencia’s drinks would be complete without mentioning Horchata. This deliciously sweet, creamy drink is made from chufas, the tubers of a type of sedge grown more or less exclusively in the Valencia Region. It’s another drink that came to Valencia during Arab rule and has lasted until today. It's non-alcoholic, and much sought-after in the summer heat throughout Spain.
It’s not uncommon to see Valencia’s chefs travelling right to the source to get their ingredients – to the farm gate or down to the fishing port – in pursuit of the finest produce. It’s a mark of the pride Valencians have in their rich gastronomic and cultural heritage.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Florian Thiery] [Top box: Florian Thiery] [Pastries: www.heatheronhertravels.com] [Horchata: Enrique Dans]
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