Valencia, one of Spain’s 17 Comunidades Autónomas or “autonomous communities” is located in eastern Spain, on the Mediterranean Sea. To the north lies Cataluña, to the northwest the region of Aragon, to the west the region of Castilla-La Mancha and to the south, the region of Murcia. The Comunidad Valenciana is made up of three provinces—Castellón, Alicante, and Valencia. Valencians have their own language, Valenciá, similar to Catalán, spoken in neighboring Cataluña.
History and Cultural Influences
Like the rest of Spain, Valencia was an important zone for many invaders – Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, and Visigoths. The capital city is also called Valencia, founded by Romans in 138 B.C. as Valentia, meaning “strong” or “powerful.” In the early part of the 8th century, the Moors arrived in Valencia and governed the region for 500 years. Their influence is evident in the area’s culture and cuisine. The Moors introduced rice, sugarcane, oranges, and almonds and advanced irrigation systems. Valencia was reconquered by Christians in the 15th century.
Although there is an incredibly diverse cuisine in Valencia, rice dominates the region’s menus. Rice dishes can be broken down into “dry” rice dishes, like paella, and rice stews called arroz caldoso in Spanish, which is cooked in traditional ceramic or metal dishes. Then, there are oven-baked rice dishes like arroz al horno (arros al forn) and soft rice dishes made in earthenware casseroles like arros amb costra with an egg crust.
Although Valencia is known for the high-quality rice it grows and rice dishes, such as the now world-famous paella, the traditional gastronomy of the region has much more to offer. The coastal plains and the inland mountain areas have two distinct cuisines. Fish, seafood, and rice are the mainstays of the coastal cuisine, whereas meat dishes including game, lamb, and kid goat are common in the mountain areas. Both mountain and coastal areas of Valencia can claim their own ollas or stews that can include seafood, vegetables, beef, pork, lamb or other meat, dried meat, bacon, beans and/or sausages.
Valencia’s cuisine can best be described by dividing it into provinces: Castellón, Alicante, and Valencia.
Castellón is the northern-most of the three provinces. The most common dishes in this area are rice-based. One of the most unusual rice dishes is called arroz empredrado and is made with tomatoes and codfish covered with white beans.
The inland area of Maestrazgo is known for its meat dishes, especially lamb, roast kid goat, stuffed meat, and tripe. The stew of the area is called “Castellón” and is made with white beans, meat and bacon fat and is eaten all over the province.
Arroz marinero or “Sea Rice” is similar to paella and includes rice, shrimp, clams, peas, and peppers. The area is famous for large prawns and they are popular here.
Valencia is well-known for two of its crops—oranges and rice. In fact, the Valencians are so proud of the high-quality rice they grow that there is a Denomination of Origin for rice! The rice-producing zone is around the Parque Natural de la Albufera in the province of Alicante, but other areas include Beniparrell, La Alcudia, Oliva, Pego and Sagunto in Alicante. Of course, we must mention paella, the internationally famous rice dish from Valencia:
Valencia also has a number of dishes made of seafood and fowl, complete with sauces. All-i-pebre is a sauce made of a combination of garlic, oil, and paprika and is commonly served with eel. Pato a la naranja is a duck with orange sauce, an original dish from this area.
We can’t describe Valencian food without mentioning the sweet drink called horchata, made from earth almonds and particularly refreshing on a hot summer day.
The cuisine of Alicante has been influenced heavily by the surrounding areas, including La Mancha, Valencia, and Murcia. So, many dishes you may find here are Alicante’s version of another region’s dish. For example, paella alicantina is a version of paella that is prepared with chicken and rabbit, not seafood.
Fideuà or fideuá is a noodle dish made in a paella pan, using similar ingredients as a seafood paella, but substituting noodles for the rice. This dish is so popular along the coast of Alicante, that the area around the town of Gandia holds competitions to see who can prepare the best fideuá. As with paella, there are many different varieties of fideuá. Some use thin vermicelli noodles while others prefer thicker noodles like spaghetti. Fideuá can contain fish, squid, and other seafood and saffron, but some prefer to use squid or cuttlefish ink, which turns the dish jet black.
Other dishes from Alicante are:
- Bajoques Farcides—pepper stuffed with rice, pork, tomatoes and spices
- La Pericana—codfish, olive oil, dried peppers, and garlic
- Cocido de Pelotas—made for special occasions with chicken or turkey, lean pork and bacon fat, garbanzo beans, and spices served with balls made of egg, pork, blood breadcrumbs and parsley.
- Arroz con Costra—a very special rice dish, now popular all over the community of Valencia but originating in Elche, Alicante.
Alicante is well known for its sweets or desserts, including dates, pomegranates, and turrones. It is famous worldwide for its almond nougat candy called turron, a favorite Christmas treat of Arab origin and contains almonds and honey. The most famous city for turron production is Jijona.
There are three Denominations of Origin (D.O.) in Valencia: Alicante, Utiel-Requena, and Valencia. The D.O. of Alicante is famous for sweet dessert wines and in particular, a wine called Fondillón, a white wine with high alcohol content. In the D.O. Utiel-Requena, the red bobal grape, along with Tempranillo and cabernet-sauvignon and merlot produce solid reds and roses.