I KNOW I should be looking up at the magnificent domed cupola and art nouveau mosaics of Valencia’s architecturally splendid Mercado Central, but I just can’t take my eyes off the cañaillas. The stall in front of me is a writhing mass of these sea snails bristling with horn-like spurs of shell, and some appear to be ‘walking’ by rocking from side to side. It’s a spectacle that is at the same time repulsive and compelling, like the live anguilas (eels) oozing blood and the black lobsters from Galicia, rhythmically flexing their claws.
At this glorious market, one of Europe’s largest, 60 of the 960 stalls are selling seafood: pulpo cocido (cooked octopus) for stews, rojos gordos (fat ruby-red prawns) from Dénia, navajas (razor clams), percebes (barnacles), tellinas (tiny clams, a local speciality), rape (monkfish), tenca (tench) and just about every other species that dwells in the Mediterranean or in the lakes and rivers of the Valencia region in eastern Spain.
Yet despite this cast of characters from a Jacques Cousteau documentary, Valencia’s regional dish, paella, contains no seafood if it is cooked in the authentic way. Though you do see paella de marisco and paella mixta (fish and meat) on tables in the region, purists regard them as poor cousins to the real thing — which originates in the rice paddies south of Valencia, using not just rice but duck, rabbit and snails, the fauna native to that marshy habitat.
To understand the dish, I have come to the market with Josep Alberola, a guide with ValenciaGuias. We begin at the Natividad Soler stall, which sells saffron, the spice that gives paella its golden colour. I’m intrigued by the tiny tubers, like hairy onions, sold here. “They’re saffron bulbs,” Josep says, “and very rare. People give them as a present, to plant between July and August.”
Next we visit the Gomez Molina stall, where a banner reads ‘Coloniales y Especias de Origen’ (produce from the colonies and spices of origin) — particularly pimentón (paprika), with six types on display. At Caracoles Peribanez, one of two snail specialists at the market, the tiny molluscs are sold like mussels in net bags and labelled according to what they eat. “The very best graze on rosemary,” Josep tells me, “and the ones we use for paella are called baqueta fina. At a vegetable stall nearby, he seeks out the garrofon (white lima beans) and ferradura (wide, leathery green beans) essential to a paella, and also tomatoes (“the red ones are for cooking, the big green ribbed ones are for the salad that we always eat with a paella”).
Next day, I hire a flat-bottomed skiff on L’Albufera, a protected freshwater lake seven miles south of Valencia. Bursting through the bullrushes, the boat docks at Nou Raco — the upmarket restaurant where I whet my appetite with anguilas all-i-pebre (eels in garlic and pepper sauce), the traditional meal of eel fishermen. For the extreme paella experience, I take a 10-minute taxi ride to El Saler, a village in the heart of the rice paddies. At La Matandeta, I begin my meal with appetisers typical of the region: duck pâté on toast; thin triangles of coca (Valencian pizza) with morcilla (black pudding) and melted cheese on top; esgarraet de pimiento (long strips of pepper and aubergine, roasted with olive oil and garlic) and topped with alternate slices of cheese and mojama (salty dry-cured tuna); and squid carpaccio in its own ink.
When my paella arrives, it bears no resemblance to what I’ve eaten before. The abiding impression is one of greenness, from the ferradura covering its entire surface. The black snail shells, with their beautiful spiral patterns, are conspicuous, too. Drilling down, the rice grains have remained distinct and al dente, while the flavour of each ingredient has infused all the others. It’s a slow-cooked medley, mainly of vegetables — and with not a hint of fish.
For that, it is best to head for the beach. At La Rosa, one of the many cabin restaurants lining Playa de Las Arenas, the signature dish is fideuà — like a seafood paella, but made with thin noodles instead of rice. The other highlight on the menu is arroz a banda (‘rice on the side’), a fisherman’s dish of seafood and rice, this time cooked in a fish broth. The name derives from the traditional way of eating it; the fish infused rice served as a starter ‘on the side’, followed by the seafood and what remains of the broth.
Unexpectedly, I enjoy the perfect arroz a banda in the much-maligned resort of Benidorm, an hour and a half away. The town is awash with decent restaurants serving all manner of authentic rice dishes. Spinach, monkfish and clams is a favourite combination; cauliflower, potato, artichoke and dried cod is another. At Barranco Playa, one of several good restaurants on the swish Poniente (west) side of town that is frequented by Spaniards, I tuck into arroz a banda. Pale yellow, meltingly soft and slightly burnt underneath, it is laced with tender squid and served with a pungent aioli, or garlic mayonnaise. It may be the chilled Rioja I am sipping and the prospect of a swim, but it tastes almost as good as the real thing.
1. Mercado Central: With 960 stalls, this exuberant 1926 food market is one of Europe’s biggest, an art nouveau treasure. www.mercadocentralvalencia.es
2. L’Albufera: Freshwater lagoon on city’s doorstep, part of Albufera Nature Reserve. Hire a flat-bottomed boat, spot herons, visit quiet El Palmar with its 27 restaurants.
3. Orxata: Cooling, milky-sweet Moorish drink made from chufa (tigernuts), best at the ornately tiled Horchatería Santa Catalina. www.horchateriasantacatalina.com
4. Agua de Valencia: Potent cocktail of vodka, gin, Cava, orange juice and sugar,try it at the cabaret-kitsch Café Tocado (Calle Cádiz 44) in up and coming Ruzafa.
5. Moscatel de la Marina 2008, Enrique Mendoza: Delicate, medium-sweet wine from Alicante. Orange citrus, light honey and Muscat grapes — perfect with dessert.
Four places for paella
La Rosa, Valencia
Tipped as the best place for rice dishes on the beach — specifically the Playa de Las Arenas next to the America’s Cup marina. First stroll the ‘Golden Mile’ of cabin-like restaurants strung out along a boardwalk fringing the sand — including La Pepica, once a haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Then settle down to a starter of rojos gordos (red prawns) or chanquetes o pescaditos (‘whitebait and fried small fish’) followed by sea bass all-i-pebre, seafood paella or fideucà (similar, but with noodles, not rice).
How much: From €40-60 (£34-52), per person, for three courses. T: 00 34 96 371 2076. www.restaurantelarosa.es
Barranco Playa, Benidorm
On Benidorm’s upmarket ‘Spanish’ side (as opposed to the downmarket ‘British’ side) is an entire seafront avenue of excellent restaurants, with palm-shaded terraces overlooking the beach — albeit separated by a road. Swim before lunch, then order jabugo ham (from wild pigs in Extremadura, fed on acorns), a salad of lettuce hearts, tuna, olives and asparagus or calamares as a starter. The main has to be arroz a banda, seafood with rice cooked in fish broth.
How much: From €55 (£47) per person, for three courses. T: 00 34 96 680 4777. www.barrancoplaya.com
La Matandeta, El Saler
This is where I had my ‘extreme paella’ moment, on a terrace overlooking the rice paddies just south of Valencia. Dig down through a layer of green beans into golden rice to find nuggets of duck, rabbit and chicken, then weedle snails from their shells. Gwyneth Paltrow learned to make paella here when filming the travel series Spain… on the Road Again. Yet there is more to La Matandeta than paella, as the mouthwatering Valencian appetisers (see main story) show. Popular with Spanish families on Sundays.
How much: From €50 (£43) per person, for three courses with drinks. T: 00 34 96 211 2184.
Nou Raco, El Palmar
Nothing beats bursting through the rushes in a flat-bottomed boat on
L’Albufera and seeing this startlingly contemporary building spread out before you. Start with a drink on the rooftop terrace, with its nautical teak flooring, cuboid furniture, scarlet cushions and shaded divan beds. Inside are dining spaces for every occasion, from a romantic dinner for two to a civil wedding. Eels all-i-pebre (in pepper sauce) is the main speciality, but all the typical Valencian rice dishes are here.
How much: From €65 (£56) per person, for three courses. T: 00 34 96 162 0172. www.nouraco.com
Published in the Mar/Apr 2011 issue © National Geographic Traveller (UK)