October 5, 2011

Rice Culture in Valencia. It's More Than Just Paella

So apparently the only famous thing Hemingway ever did in Valencia was eat paella in La Pepica, a restaurant at the city beach. I know this because every guide on the planet (at least written in English) seems to direct tourists there for it. I'm going to resist the urge to rant, and just say that, while the paella at La Pepica is good, it is probably overpriced, flooded with tourists, and hardly the only place to eat this famous Valencian dish.

Hemingway forever consecrating La Pepica in his book, The Dangerous Summer,
as a "must visit" spot for American tourists in Valencia.

What's more, since I live here in Valencia, home to the famous rice dish, I feel obliged to explain that rice culture in this region runs deep, and is not just about paella. Valencians are really big rice eaters in general. Among the dishes you can sample, there are, broadly speaking, at least five different categories of classic rice plates: "paella," "arroz meloso" and "caldoso," "arroz al horno," and "pimientos rellenos" (or stuffed peppers).

Within the "paella" dish spectrum, the most famous variations are:

• "de pollo y conejo" (chicken and rabbit) also called "la paella valenciana" (it sometimes also has "caracoles," or snails)… this is the traditional meat paella [For instructions on how to make it, check out this series of blog entries.]
• "de marisco" (seafood)
• "de verduras" (vegetable paella, which can change with the season, so that in winter, for example, it is nice because it has artichokes hearts).
• "arròs negre" (a rich flavored black paella made with squid ink)
• "a banda" (plain rice cooked in a broth)
• "l'arròs del senyoret" (this is the marisco paella, but with all the shells pealed and removed… thus the name: "rice [prepared] for a lord")

La paella valenciana, as prepared and displayed by my mother-in-law.
But there are many, many more kinds, including some regional twists from towns throughout the Valencian Community. Traditionally, paella is cooked in the "paella" frying pan over an open wood fire ("leña"), though many people cook it at home over a stove flame. There is also a saying that the water in Valencia isn't good for anything except making paella. Indeed, Penelope Casas correctly recounts what most Valencians will tell you, when she writes:
"the local water—dreadful for drinking—seems to have a unique chemical composition that is perfect for rice cookery." — in The Foods and Wines of Spain, p. 174.
Ajoaceite, or "All i oli" in Catalán.
This is why locals say that paella can never taste the same, or as good, as it does in Valencia. (It is very important that you pronounce the double "ll" in paella as a "y" and not an "l" sound... as in "pae-yah.") Be sure to order "ajoaceite," Spain's traditional accompaniment to paella and version of aioli, the typical Mediterranean garlic mayonnaise sauce.

And though they look a lot like paella, the "arroz meloso" and "arroz caldoso" are technically not. These soupier rice dishes are cooked in a slightly deeper pan, the meloso version leaving the rice just slightly moist with caldo (broth), whereas the caldoso is pretty much a rice soup. One truly delicious variation is "arroz meloso con bogavante," which is a soupy rice cooked with a regional lobster.

The classic arroz al horno
Then there is "arroz al horno," also considered an entirely different dish, which is rice cooked in a clay pot (cazuela) in an oven. The most common one has tomato, potato, morcilla (a Spanish blood sausage), garlic, chickpeas, and pork ribs. There are hundreds of variations on this dish, but that is the one you will typically find in restaurants, and I highly recommend it.

Pimiento rellenos, a homemade Valencian staple
And finally there is "pimiento relleno," which is a thick juicy local red pepper stuffed and baked with Valencian rice. This dish is tricky to find in restaurants, but is really delicious, so keep an eye out for it.  The two typical ones are: "de bacalao" (cod), and "de carne" (with ground pork).

The best place to eat paella is naturally at your mom or mother-in-law's house. But if you can't get invited to a local's home, there are other remedies. One is to attend one of the many paella street festivals in the region throughout the year. But in terms of restaurants, for die-hard, true lovers of paella, _the_ place to eat it is El Palmar, a pueblo south of the city and right next to the Albufera lake where the special "arroz de Valencia" rice is grown. Most if not all the "arrocerías" (rice restaurants) there will serve excellent paella, though one that is particularly nice is called Nou Racó (previously El Racó del L'Olla), which has a strong international reputation and is located right on the lake.

A nighttime view of Nou Racó taken from the Albufera lake

The Albufera Park is itself worth a visit (and perhaps a future blog entry). You can reserve a complete visit to the Nou Racó restaurant where you take a ride on one of the shallow (gondola-like) boats over the lake, visit the museum which talks about the park (the largest bird migration spot in southern Europe), and most importantly, have lunch at the restaurant Nou Racó. However, this paella mecca requires either taking a bus or taxi, or having a car.

Arroz caldoso de bogavante
An alternative, also quite nice if you can't get out of the city, would be to go to La Riuà located in the city center (C/ del Mar, 27, 46003 Valencia), which is highly rated by locals. For exquisite arroz meloso, my favorite arrocería is L'Altell (Calle Vinaroz, Avenida Primado Reig, 46020 Valencia). And if it is just more convenient, there is always Hemingway's La Pepica, or La Marcelina another arrocería right next to it. Both have the advantage of being right at the beach, ready to serve lunches on those days you want to tour around the recently renovated port area or lay out on the "Las Arenas" (the sands) city beach. Though I've been told by locals that L'Estimat, another arrocería right there on the beach, makes a better quality paella than the other two heavily-frequented-by-tourists spots.

Oh, and one final piece of advice. People here _always_ have these rice dishes for lunch, _never_ for dinner. It actually struck my wife as odd when one of our visitors once asked if we could do a paella for dinner. Just something to keep in mind.


Ron said...

Great post and terrific blog! Looking forward to more. Lots of Spain blogs "snorkel" spanish culture, your blog scubadives into it.

By the way, since you have moved between Spain and the US for so many years, how did you settle on Valencia as a place to live?

An Expat in Spain said...

Thanks Ron! The honest answer for why Valencia is simple and personal, my wife is from here.

Still, I think I can make a case for settling on Valencia over other places... though it depends on what you're looking for. Valencia is the third largest city in Spain, which means it has a lot of urban resources for people who like (or need) that. However, it is not as cosmopolitan as Madrid or Barcelona. (For better and worse: right now Barcelona is experiencing a backlash to its growth and tourism.) Also, it is located on the Mediterranean and very much of that (wonderful) culture, and surrounded by fields of produce and very fresh, quality food.

I could go on (and probably will in a future blog post). There are other places I could recommend for living in Spain (San Sebastian, for example, if you prefer a smaller town), but I would certainly choose Valencia above all others even if it weren't for my friends and family here.

Anonymous said...

Ohhh, la Albufera. Just the photo of the lake already has me salivating over the thought of crispy crunchy soccorat.

Last time I went was back in December of last year with my family for the holidays. I anticipate that the oversize paella we devoured - complete with chicken, rabbit, and snails - is going to be completely impossible to top this year.

An Expat in Spain said...

Hello contomates! As I said, this is the heartland of paella, so it is definitely hard to top it. It sounds like you should make another pilgrimage here to try the paella de marisco, or, for a flavorful twist, the arroz negro.

After reading my paella post this last weekend, my mother-in-law insisted we go for arroz meloso de bogavante for the holiday lunch tomorrow. #lifeisgood

An Expat in Spain said...

Finally, a beginning to the end of all the global confusion about what is "paella valenciana"! The Valencian government has approved the status of "paella valenciana" as a "denominación de origen":


This article ends with a nice summation of the official ingredients:

"El ADN del plato autóctono [The DNA of the native plate]

Aceite [Vegetable oil]
Pollo [Chicken]
Conejo [Rabbit]
"Ferraura" (bajoqueta) [a local green bean]
"Garrafó" [a local white bean]
Agua [Water]
Sal [Salt]
Azafrán [Safron]
Arroz [the local Valencian rice]"

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An Expat in Spain said...

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