Spain’s third largest city, Valencia, isn’t on the beaten tourist trail, which tends to take travellers from Barcelona and Madrid, down to Andalucía’s beaches and forts. Yet, it regularly makes it to the top of lists for most liveable cities, a case in point being the recent Expat City Ranking 2022, by InterNations.
In fact, as we discovered on a recent trip, Valencia makes for an excellent family escape, with beaches, futuristic architecture, exciting new museums, and palm-dotted gardens, all surrounding the nucleus of an old town that is a tangle of gothic, renaissance, baroque and art nouveau buildings.
Our personal favourite amongst these historic monuments, was the Lonja de Seda or Silk Exchange, one of Europe’s best preserved gothic structures, and the largest example of commercial, as opposed to religious, edifices in that style. Built between 1482 and 1533, it was originally used for trading in silk, and bears witness to the significant role played by the merchants of the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Walking the streets of Valencia one gets a whiff of the orient, in the fountains and the orange trees that line its courtyards. In fact, the city was under Islamic rule for over 500 years between 718 and 1238, before it was conquered by James I of Aragon. Muslims were initially allowed to stay on in the city, although eventually they were forced to convert to Christianity. Converts, known as Moriscos, made up about a third of the population, until they were expelled in 1609.
It was these Muslims who Spain can thank for what many consider to be the national dish: paella. This is a rice dish and there are as many versions of it, as regions in Spain, but purists agree that the Valencian paella is the OG.
Rice was introduced to the coastal regions surrounding Valencia about 1,200 years ago by the Arabs. Its cultivation went on to become the cornerstone of the region’s economy and gastronomy. Another major ingredient of the dish, saffron, was also introduced by the Muslims.
In Valencia, it is impossible to escape paella. Pans to cook it line the main market in the old town. Street souvenir shops overflow with paella-shaped fridge magnets. Every other restaurant has it on the menu, and even graffiti artists sneak it into their subversive art.
Valencian paella is different from other versions in that it eschews fish or seafood, despite the city’s coastal location. Instead, it is made with locally grown rice, some rabbit, chicken, beans, a pinch of paprika, a sprig of rosemary and in the old days- a handful of mountain snails. It evolved as food for agricultural workers, a humble repast. And it was made outdoors, with easily available ingredients, cooked on a great wood fire.
In Madrid, its common to find paella “mixta,” a surf and turf combination, where seafood and chicken are combined in the dish. To the Valencian, this is akin to butter chicken-pizza: an abomination. A good paella, I learned, was like a martini the way James Bond likes it- shaken, not stirred. The paella chef must flick her wrist to loosen the starch in the rice grains, but never stir it. The most important skill is to learn how to control the temperature of the fire, so that the soccarat – the layer of toasted rice that forms a crust at the bottom of the pan- is formed.
In October 2021, the local government of the Valencian region declared paella an Intangible Asset of Cultural Interest and is in the process of applying for UNESCO recognition for the dish. The idea is to protect paella from the kind of modifications that its increasing popularity around the world has led to. British cook Jamie Oliver’s use of spicy chorizo sausage in his paella was one such variation that caused massive outrage in Spain, not to mention UK supermarket Tesco’s paella sandwich.
The Italians have managed to get UNESCO to declare Neapolitan pizza an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which establishes the parameters for preparing it. This is what the Valencian government wants for paella.
During our trip, we also visited the l’Albufera natural park, which is a short drive from the city and the birthplace of paella-friendly varieties of rice like Senia, Bomba and Albufera. It’s an ecosystem made up of lakes, canals, and marshland. It was flamingo season during our visit, and as the sun set, we saw great flocks of these birds wheeling across the flaming skies. The moment was perfectly tranquil. Then my younger son disrupted it by broaching the subject that has been the cause of considerable marital discord in our family: “But Muma, you still prefer biryani to paella, no?” My Spanish husband glared at me, and I pretended not to have heard.
Where to get the best paella in Valencia
Try the paella at LAOVE Arroz y Mar
There is also cookery school, Escuela de arroces y paellas, where you don’t just eat paella, but learn how to cook it for yourself. The experience includes a trip to the local market for the freshest ingredients.