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Rice to riches

Written by Emmy on 4 November 2011

Spain is a very quiet country on Sundays. Owing to the strong Catholic tradition that still prevails (despite some modern unorthodox practices), Spain shuts down and heads to church. But I learned when I went for a morning walk that Valencia also revels in the other national religion on Sundays: fútbol.

Crowding the streets of the old city, children tote large binders and stacks of cards while their parents stand nearby ticking names off of a list. Collecting cards with soccer players on them is a huge pastime, and the parents seemed just as taken by the process as their children. One mother proudly told us that her son had just gotten a card for free that was being sold nearby for five euros. Some little girls had Hello Kitty cards in lieu of soccer players, but children of all ages — stroller through teenager — were playing the game.



Nearby at La Lonja, stamp and coin collectors gathered to show off and peddle their wares. One stamp collector overheard us speaking in English and waved us over to show off his collection of American stamps, which featured everything from WWII-era stamps to the ubiquitous “Love” stamp. The stamps were rather expensive though, so we said thank you and moved on.

Toni and Marisa came to pick us up near the stamp sellers and we drove down to the beach. As big of a deal as lunch in Spain is on the average day, Sunday is a whole other story. With the entire day open, why not devote three hours to eating?

Valencia is renowned as the birthplace of paella. Served all over Spain and the world, paella is characterized by a yellow rice — it gets its color from cooking in saffron — and is usually filled with a plethora of ingredients. Traditional paella is less of a hodgepodge than the type often proffered in copycat establishments. Paella Valenciana, for example, which comes from the region, contains chicken and rabbit. Paella de mariscos, which I used to eat on the boardwalk in Barceloneta, contains a variety of seafood items.

The beachfront strip in Valencia is lined with restaurant after restaurant serving a very similar menu of paella and other seafood items. The true measure of a good paella restaurant is whether they make their dish on the spot and the way you can judge authenticity is when a restaurant serves paella. Despite its seemingly heavy nature, paella is meant to only be served at lunchtime. Paella for dinner would be sacrilege.


We sat down at one of the many beachfront restaurants where Toni had made a reservation for the four of us. We left all ordering up to the masters and had several appetizers in advance of our paella. First we tried another version of esgarrat, the dish composed of red peppers and cod. This time it was served with a dried, salted tuna, which had a taste and texture similar to that of lox (but more tuna-y, obviously). We also had calamares romanas, fried calamari rings, and the same chipirones, or squid, dish that we had eaten Friday night. This time the squid was served with green beans and chickpeas, which Jessica and I were both pleased by.



Based upon Toni’s recommendation, we had paella with fish. The official name of the dish is arròs de senyoret in Catalan, or arroz de señorito in Spanish. The name translates to mean something like “playboy’s rice” because the fish in the paella is already peeled and so it requires next to no work to eat it. The paella was placed in the center of the table still in the giant metal pan it was cooked in. Though a serving spoon was provided, we were advised that it is totally appropriate to just stick your fork in the center dish and go at it. And go at it we did.


Just as we were finishing our paella, a waitress from the restaurant next door came in looking for Toni. It turns out that we had sat down at the wrong place and our reservation was actually supposed to be next door. To be fair, every restaurant had the same awning and identical menus. When we asked if there was a table for us and were told yes, how were we supposed to know the difference?

After handling the reservation debacle and drinking a coffee, we went for a walk along the water. Valencia has historically been one of the most important Mediterranean port cities and the waterfront is still lined with containers and cranes. Just a few paces down the coast, the scene is one of umbrellas and cabanas, rather than ships.


But Valencia has always lagged its Spanish sister cities in tourism and has been pushing to change that. The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias was one attempt. A new high-speed train runs between Madrid and Valencia, creating a 90-minute journey to a weekend getaway. (Toni commented that the madrileños consider Valencia to be “their beach.”) Valencia hosted the America’s Cup and built several monstrous waterfront structures to house all the activity. But today, they sit empty – another sign of the money that has been poured into an industry that is currently dormant and another point of contention for the local people.

We took a stroll back down the boardwalk before hopping into the car and heading back downtown.


We bid farewell to Toni and Marisa and made our way to the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, or IVAM as it is usually known. The museum was filled with some rather strange artwork and I was trying hard not to fall into a serious food coma (the wine at lunch wasn’t helping with that either). So we entertained ourselves while looking at the art, thanks to a fairly liberal photography policy.


Playtime aside, we perused the rest of the museum galleries for a while. We walked one final loop around the old city, finding even fewer things open than the day before. But, one item we hand’t been able to visit on Saturday was mobbed with visitors late Sunday afternoon: Horchateria El Siglo, the neighbor and major competitor to Horchateria Santa Caterina. The outdoor seating area was packed with locals who all looked like they had just come from church activities. By this point in time, I had mysteriously lost my voice and so I ordered a tea. Jessica got in one final dose of Spanish hot chocolate.


It took us a while to come off of our mid-afternoon sugar high (and lingering fullness from lunch), but eventually, much later, we were ready to eat again. We opted for the lightest of dinners — tapas — and a fare we had not yet enjoyed. Tapas from the Basque Region are a bit different than those from elsewhere. Up north they’re known as pintxos and all ingredients are served on top of bread. Typically, each pinto is then speared with a toothpick. Most Basque bars are do-it-yourself and so you are responsible for holding onto your toothpicks so they can be counted and tallied at the end of the meal.

Basque bars have become popular all over Spain (and recently in New York too!) and we had noted several interesting ones near our hotel. So we chose the one that Let’s Go liked too, grabbed a table and started grabbing pintxos.


The height of our eating spree actually came at the very end, after our delicious tapas. Jessica is a huge fan of frozen yogurt, but it turns out that the Romans are not. However, the Valencians are. She capped off the day with authentic chocolate frozen yogurt, served by an English-speaking man who let her have free samples.

The food-filled adventure was a great way to spend our last day together in Spain.

Arab influence

Written by Emmy on 3 November 2011

We began Saturday morning’s walk in a corner of the old city we had not seen the day before, Russafa, which is generally considered the Muslim neighborhood. The further south you travel in Spain, the stronger the Moorish influence is, in food, architecture and population composition. Second to Sagrada Familia, Spain’s most important sight is La Alhambra in Granada, a spectacular structure that was at different moments a church, a fortress and a mosque. Here in Russafa, the Moorish influence is a bit more subtle, but evident nonetheless.


One of our first stops was obviously the market. Like in Barcelona, Valencian neighborhoods have their own small markets, reserving the central market for mayhem, tourists and special visits. The Mercat de Russafa was more manageable, but no less filled with delicious food.


Sitting next to the fresh fruit at several stands were pumpkin halves, lightly browned and ready to be eaten. True to Toni and Marisa’s explanation, the people could not seem to get enough of the roasted pumpkin.



We bought a slice of pumpkin of which Jessica raved so much that we bought two more, sat on the steps of a church and ate them with our fingers. The pumpkin in the market was far superior to the pumpkin at dinner; it tasted very fresh and had a natural sweetness.

We didn’t see much else open during our brief stay in Russafa. Spanish business hours are a fickle thing. Some stores open early and close for siesta, some stores open late and bypass nap time, some stores open in the afternoon and stay open for bar hoppers to take a peak. It’s really very hard to predict (and might have some bearing on the economic struggles of small Spanish towns). In the main part of the city, everything was open by 10 or 11 a.m., but in smaller neighborhoods, it seemed to be each man’s rules for himself.

We roamed the streets, walked into another big market and a few stores and then before we knew it, it was lunchtime. (I swear we did more than just eat on this trip; the photos I have just don’t reflect that.)

We dined al fresco at a restaurant highly praised by several guidebooks, El Rall. The restaurant is largely renowned for its paella, but we already had plans for a paella feast on Sunday, so decided to sample some of the other notable items instead.

When we sat down, we were greeted with do-it-yourself pan con tomate, proving that despite Catalunya’s claim over this item, it does exist elsewhere. We ordered coca, a paper-thin Valencian bread, topped with goat cheese, onions and zucchini. We also had roasted chicken. Our lunch was delicious, but looking around, it appeared that we were doing it all wrong. While we happily ate from our two plates, our patio-mates were on at least their third or fourth course. Perhaps they hadn’t pregamed with pumpkin.


After lunch, Jessica returned to the hotel to get a little homework done. Blissfully responsibility free, I explored the back streets of the old quarter, wandering through little squares and pausing at a tiny cafe for a cortado. I saw a ton of signage for the protests scheduled for that night, part of the international response to Occupy Wall Street. There had been signs in Barcelona too for the coordinated international event.


Jessica and I continued our perusal of the old quarter, still finding an odd number of places to be closed. Still, we were able to check out a few local hotspots as well as some rather quirky art galleries. We got lost several times, owing in large part to our very poor map, but discovered that even locals had only a sketchy sense of direction. One shopkeeper we asked for help had to pull out an atlas in order to assist us.

We finally landed at Plaça de Santa Catalina, a gathering spot for locals of all ages. One of the items Valencia is most well-known for is horchata, an icy cold drink different from the one of the same name found in Mexico. It looks like milk, but contains no dairy — perfect for me and my milk phobia! Valencian horchata is made from ground tigernuts, water and sugar.

Two of the most famous horchaterias sit in Santa Catalina, but only one was open, so our decision was easily made. We fought our way to a table — the place was packed, mostly with families — and ordered a horchata for me, an absurdly thick hot chocolate for Jessica and fartóns, a puff pastry traditionally dunked in the two drinks.


Following our late afternoon sugar high, we returned to the hotel to detox and digest. After a long while, it was time to eat again.

We headed to a new neighborhood, up in the organized grid part of the city near where many of the university buildings are located. Valencia too calls their more modernized section the Eixample. Our restaurant of choice had been picked from the New York Times’ 36 Hours, ever the trusty resource. The restaurant, Balansiya, offered a range of Moorish foods; the restaurant’s name is how one would say Valencia in Arabic.

We started with hummus and babaganoush, two familiar-sounding favorites of the Liss family. They were a little different here — the hummus was thicker and chunkier, tasting intensely like its chickpea base, while the babagnoush had much more of a sesame taste than I’m used to. They were served with bread, as opposed to pita.


IMG_7169For our main course, we ordered a chicken tagine, seasoned with almonds and saffron, and a pastel de pollo. The chicken cake, as it is literally translated, looked like a cinnamon-and-sugar coated pastry when it arrived, but once we cut into it, curried chicken and nuts emerged. Both dishes were very reminiscent of the food we ate on a family trip to Morocco a few years ago.


The restaurant served no alcohol because of its Muslim ties, but our waiter did offer to put our names on a list at a nearby hopping club. After all our eating we were feeling a bit sluggish, so we declined. I ordered tea and watched as the waiter poured it from up high in traditional fashion. Even though we had turned down his invitation to go clubbing, he also gave us a complimentary sampling of house desserts.

The night was just starting for most young Spaniards as we left, but for us, it was bedtime.

Speaking Valenciana

Written by Emmy on 2 November 2011

On Friday morning we bid farewell to Barcelona and boarded the train to Valencia. The three-hour ride was pleasant and comfortable and our train had assigned seats and in-flight entertainment, more than I can say for Amtrak or Thai Railways. The journey began and ended along the coast, weaving inland between the seaside stops. Just outside Barcelona, the landscape became totally rural, with farmhouses, fields and mountains lined with windmills.

We arrived in Valencia just in time for lunch. After quickly dropping our belongings at the hotel, we headed to Mercat Central, the large food market that claims to be the largest in Western Europe. This is a superlative I’ve heard thrown around a few times before, but Mercat Central was pretty impressive.


We picked up a lunch picnic to eat on the steps outside the market. Jessica sampled some of the market’s prepared foods, while I went for more of an a la carte antipasto approach, purchasing manchego cheese, hummus, artichokes, sundried tomatoes and peppers.


Valencia is organized similarly to Barcelona, with a condensed egg-shaped historic center and a more sprawling modern section built along a grid. Though Valencia has an equally large share of Mediterranean coastline, the historic part of the city is a solid 10-minute drive from the water. The old walled city kept its distance, earning Valencia the translated-from-Catalan tagline of “the city with its back to the sea.”

We had plans to explore the old center later in the afternoon, so we decided to be atypical and check out the parts of the city that do touch the sea. The main thoroughfare that begins at the old gates of the city and heads toward the water stops about a kilometer before the Mediterranean. Blocking the major avenue from continuing straight ahead is the neighborhood of Cabanyal, and this is a major source of municipal tension. El Cabanyal is the old fisherman quarters and is filled with charming old townhouses, but it has a bit of seedy reputation these days. Tired of prostitutes and poverty and interested in connecting the water to the old city, local politicians have campaigned to knock down part of the neighborhood in order to build the last kilometer of road. This has incited quite a bit of pushback from locals, who are advocating for restoration of the neighborhood instead. Clearly people are very up in arms about the whole debacle; a woman saw Jessica and I taking photos and began screaming at us in Spanish, assuming we were with the pro-destruction group.


A mile or so down the water awaits a very different sight. Now a decade old, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias – the City of Arts and Sciences – was Valencia’s attempt to build a major tourist attraction. The architectural fantasy of native son Salvador Calatravas includes an art museum, a science museum, an underwater restaurant and several other attractions. The ticket to enter is pricey though, and really, the exterior is the most exciting part. Most tourists we saw there were doing the same thing as us: wandering the perimeter, taking photos and then leaving. This is problematic for Valencia as the complex was expensive to build, is expensive to maintain and now the responsibility is falling on local citizens. Particularly in the current Spanish economic climate, the Ciudad doesn’t exactly generate goodwill among locals.


After walking the exterior and frolicking in the sculpture garden, we headed back to the old city to meet up with our tour guides for the afternoon, Toni and Marisa. In my final semester at Brown, I was desperate for one last chance to take a Spanish class. Normally the offerings are limited to centuries-old literature, but there was a one-semester-only course being offered on the topic of communication, with an emphasis on modern-day journalism in Spain. Syllabus unseen, I was prepared to sign up. The class far exceeded my expectations. The professor, Toni Mollà, was visiting from Spain, where he teaches at the University of Valencia and works as a journalist. Our small class formed a strong bond with him, in and outside the classroom, and I had the chance to make tapas with him and his wife Marisa in Providence. When I told them Jessica and I were coming to Valencia, they graciously offered to tour us around and share their infinite knowledge of the city.


We began our tour in the heart of the old city, the Jewish Quarter, and visited the ancient Universitat de Valencia. The old university was built in the same style as many other European colleges that I have seen: a central open atrium, where students and professors could gather and socialize, surrounded by a ring of classrooms. Classrooms on upper floors could all be entered from a communal balcony so there would be even more space for socialization. In my experience, that’s where students gathered for a quick coffee and cigarette between classes. The old university is only used for municipal ceremonies today; the University of Valencia outgrew its old building and the different departments are now scattered around the city.

IMG_6977We had arrived that morning at the newer and uglier of the city’s two train stations, the Penn Station of Valencia. The older station, Estacion Nord, is an example of the Spanish modernismo style, which is nearly as plentiful in Valencia as it is in Barcelona. The interior of the station is decorated in a tile mosaic style typical to Valencia.

The main thoroughfare of the old city that begins at the station is punctuated by several squares. The first is Plaça del Ajuntamento, home to Valencia’s city hall. Like Barcelona, Valencia is the capital of its autonomous community, so the city is filled with government buildings from the various federalist levels. Valencia’s community is conveniently called Valencia. Bordering Catalunya, Valencia is part of the ancient group of Catalan speakers. The language is still spoken there today, but it is called Valenciana, and don’t you dare insinuate it is the same as Catalan. (But really, it is. It would be like saying the languages spoken in Boston and New York are different.)


The next two squares are Plaça de la Reina and Plaça de la Virgen, which house the cathedral and basilica, respectively. Every Spanish city has its big cathedral and the one in Valencia was built over the span of several centuries. The thee entrances represent the three different styles used and are arranged in chronological order: Romanic, Gothic and Baroque.

IMG_6992Behind the cathedral, we found we had looped back to the Mercat, which looked even prettier at night.

Just beside the Mercat was the Lonja, an open forum where silk manufacturers once gathered to trade their wares. Today the space is used for conferences and city events, but every Sunday, stamp and coin collectors gather in the traditional fashion to make sales and trades.

By this point, we had completed our historic walking tour, but no self-respecting Spaniard dines out before 9 p.m. We planned to eat in Carmen, a trendy neighborhood within the old city walls, and so decided to get a drink first. In an almost comical fashion, our table of four began to expand as we saw people Toni and Marisa knew and we suddenly found ourselves at a table of twelve, which included Valencia’s most famous journalist and a prominent local photographer. Several jokes were made comparing Carmen to the Village in New York.

After bidding our new friends farewell, the four of us walked into Can Bermell, a restaurant in Carmen that Toni and Marisa have been visiting since they were in their 20s. They reportedly were eating lunch there the day their daughter Marina, who is my age, was born.

We offered a few suggestions forth based upon the menu, but took a very backseat approach and let the locals do all the decision making. The dishes were much larger than tapas, but everything was placed in the middle to be shared.

The food was pretty similar to what I’ve had in Barcelona, though with perhaps a bit more emphasis on seafood. I thought everything we ordered was positively delicious. The dishes came out of the kitchen individually, which made it easier to enjoy and appreciate the flavors of one dish at  a time. The first was esgarrat, a typical Valencian dish. Composed of dried, salted cod, red peppers and oil, the name translates to mean “broken” because of the aggressive manner in which the ingredients are mixed together. We were instructed to eat our food with fresh bread and learned that an upside-down roll is bad luck.


The next dish was the house salad, a composed tower of tomato, fresh cheese, homemade croutons and basil, doused with balsamic vinegar. The delightful salad was followed by fresh mussels cooked with olive oil, which we fully demolished before I remembered to take a picture. Butter is an unheard-of ingredient in Spanish cooking; olive oil is considered king. Following my semester in Barcelona, I adopted a similarly firm stance and only cook with olive oil. (It’s a good thing I don’t bake that often; the result could be kind of gross.)


We also enjoyed a salad of mushrooms topped with grated truffles, which one of our new journalist friends had recommended. The final dish, which was probably my favorite, was chipirones con ajos tiernos. It translates to squid with garlic, but the dish was cooked with a kind of garlic I’ve never seen before. Toni and Marisa explained it as the stem of the garlic bulb; it was green and flavorful, but not in quite the same biting way as a garlic clove.


I was personally a bit full for dessert, but the waiter told Toni and Marisa he had a pumpkin in the oven and that was something we needed to see. Apparently in the fall, one of the most popular things to do is slice a pumpkin in half and pop it in the oven. No sugar, no cinnamon, no nothing. You just let the pumpkin roast for about an hour and then eat it as is. It was hard for me to conceptualize, but really, it would be just like eating roasted butternut squash for dessert. Pumpkin is eaten at all times of day and is very healthy. To balance out the healthy nature of the pumpkin, we also had a slice of chocolate almond cake.


Spanish dining practices place far more value on personal pleasure than communal table manners and so there is no inhibition about just sticking your fork in the central plate. It creates an element of community and sharing to the meal and we caught on quickly. Our dinner was overall phenomenal and it was so great to see Marisa and Toni again. We picked their brains for advance on Valencian activities and made plans to meet up again on Sunday.