I went to Valencia to see the city’s highlights—medieval cathedrals, steamy Mediterranean beaches, Santiago Calatrava’s architectural jewel, the City of Arts and Sciences.
But it was the local paella that stole my attention. It didn’t take long before I understood that Valencianos ardently claim this Spanish dish as their own. It took even less time to discover that I’d find the dish in restaurants all along my tourist route—no need to book a special culinary walking tour—and that each paella would be different from the last. There was paella in the city’s humblest dining establishments and its finest; cooked over an orangewood fire and over gas; prepared with the traditional rabbit and rice or with pasta, seafood and veggies; served in a pan for 20 or for two.
Once the dish of peasants, a hodgepodge of an entrée akin to Grandma’s casserole, paella takes its flavors from the village—and oftentimes the family—that a local chef calls his own.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Local rice, local saffron and olive oil, local meat and seafood. Paella is not only delicious, it’s good for you.
- Paella is Spain’s national dish, and nowhere will you find it prepared better than in Valencia. This city invented it.
- It’s always fun to hear locals argue about whether their cooking is better than someone else’s. (It always is.)
Birth of Paella
No one’s sure just how long ago the dish was invented, but paella’s roots lie in Spain’s L’Albufera, a freshwater marsh just outside the city, a soggy landscape fed by the Turia and Sueca Rivers and separated from the Mediterranean by only 3 miles of coast. The marsh was once inhabited only by the hardiest of hardscrabble peasants, fisherman-farmers who kept food on the table by fishing, hunting, and cultivating bomba rice, a paella staple that still fills the local landscape.
The Albufera’s rice naturally found its way into the paella pot. Vegetables, if included at all, were restricted to local fava beans (garrofo) and green tavella beans. Rabbit was tossed in when a hunter could catch one (and he usually could). Where eels or squid were available, they were thrown in the mix. Where noodles were easier to get, they substituted for rice.
These days Spanish chefs cook their own paella specialties, no matter where in Valencia they work. Oven-baked paella is called arroz al horno. Paella with fish is arroz a banda. Costra includes rabbit, chicken and sausage topped with an egg-omelet layer and all i pebre is a stew of eels, garlic and pepper. Locals like to point out that these are not authentic paellas—the authentic version sticks with rabbit and rice—but variety is the spice of life, as they say, and so it is with paella.
Paella on Valencia’s Coast
Nowhere is the contrast between paella’s humble roots and its grown-up sophistication more evident than at Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, the city’s cultural and artistic center and one of its top tourist attractions.
Underground, beneath Valencia’s cultural centerpiece, sits one of the city’s prime paella restaurants, the Submarino de L’Oceanogràfic. I joined my dinner companions at tables crowded with white linen, crystal and silver and surrounded by a million-dollar aquarium. With a slight bow and only the hint of a smile the head waiter displayed a monstrously large paella pan, 3 feet across and steaming, showing it first to this end of the table, then to that. After eliciting the requisite number of oohs and ahhs he dished out plates of steaming golden rice, this variety packed with savory, oversized prawns.
Just to the east, Valencia’s favorite Mediterranean beach, Arenas, draws sun-worshippers with a palm-dotted strand. Cooled with an almost constant sea breeze and frequented by sunbathers and playful families, Arenas’ La Pepica is Valencia’s most famous paella restaurant.
Under a striped awning diners feast on traditional paella as well as arroz negro, which includes black squid ink, and fideuà, a seafood paella that substitutes noodles for the rice. La Pepica is is particularly well known for its seafood paella and its colorful former patrons: Ernest Hemingway, Orson Wells and Ava Gardner.
Bringing Paella Home
What remains of Valencia’s medieval past is clustered around its 13th-century cathedral on the Plaza de la Reina. For 500 years the cathedral has claimed ownership of the Holy Grail, still on display in a side chapel. Cobbled streets surrounding the cathedral hosted bull fights until the 19th century. Today those streets still lead past tiny cafés, wine shops, pensions and restaurants.
Valencia’s favorite market, the Mercado Central, lies in this Central City and is the market of choice for the city’s paella cooks, from simple housewives to gourmet restaurateurs. Nearly a thousand vendors sell produce, meat and seafood here. And it’s the place to stock up on your own paella supplies. Bargain-priced packets of saffron (azafran) fill spice vendors shelves, their delicate orange tendrils promising a pungent, colorful addition to a homemade paella. Bottles of glistening olive oil line the walls of still other vendor stalls, and both may be carried back in your suitcase.
As for a paella pot, you’ll find them at the Mercado, too, in whatever size you like, for paella parties of two to 30. Better measure your suitcase.
Modern visitors to Valencia can expect to find at least one vegetarian offering on any paella menu, regardless of the restaurant’s specialty. Expect to find paellas priced per person with a minimum of two people per order.