My flatmate Sarah grew up in Spain and when I told her I was going to Valencia, the first thing she said was that I MUST try two things: Horchata and paella.
I’ve had paella many, many times, but the thing you need to know is that Valencia is the birthplace of paella so trying it here has become the holy grail for any visitor travelling to Spain’s 3rd largest city.
After my conversation with Sarah, it was clear that feeding my inner glutton was something I simply had to do in Valencia. With this in mind, I began researching different ways to explore the culinary delights of this coastal city and decided to contact Suzie from Tours of Valencia for a Gastronomic Tour.
When I’m travelling I don’t usually go on tours but I really wanted to try the different flavours of the city after hearing so much about them. I chose to go with Suzie’s company because her personality jumped out from her website, and if there’s anything that’s going to make a tour memorable it’s a charismatic guide!
The tour appealed to me as I was keen to know more about different tastes of Valencia, knowing already that it had a few specialities that were local to the region, and offered a unique insight into the city’s colourful history and daily habits.
Susie’s expertise and personality emanated from the get go; friendly, pretty and brimming with local knowledge all within the first five minutes. She’s half Dutch and half Spanish and although brought up in Holland she’s lived in Valencia for the last eight years. Furthermore, most of her childhood summers were spent in Spain getting to know the culture and cuisine that she so enjoys talking about with visitors.
Horchatería Santa Catalina
Our first port of all was to Horchatería Santa Catalina for – you guessed it – Horchata. With Sarah’s words still ringing through my ears, I couldn’t have asked for a more apt introduction to the taste of Valencia. Decorated with ornate tiles and greeted by a friendly waitress, Horchateria Santa Catalina has been serving this well-loved beverage for over 100 years. Not surprisingly, it’s hailed the best in town which prompts people to come here in droves.
Revealing a part of history, Suzie told us that among the crops that the Moors brought with them to Spain was the tiger nut. The core ingredient of Horchata. The drink is most popular during the summer due to its refreshing quality but people still drink it all year round. What does it taste like? Well, that’s a tough question because it’s rather unique, I can only describe it as something similar to almond-milk but slightly sweeter and creamier. Most importantly, it’s very pleasing and suitable for vegetarians since it derives from a nut.
To accompany the horchata we had fartons (which I childishly giggled at upon hearing the name). These are long slices of sugar-dusted pastries made for dipping into the drink. Suzie also encouraged us to try bunelos which are pumpkin doughnuts. If you have a sweet tooth you might wish to dunk them in some hot chocolate or horchata as well, though that may well be considered a cardinal sin since that’s the job of a farton!.
Speaking of cardinal sins… In between trying the different dishes, Suzie answered any questions we had and provided little anecdotes to keep us entertained. I was particularly amused about the story she revealed about our very own Jamie Oliver which is now comically referred to as #PaellaGate. Apparently when the brit-born chef revealed how to make paella on National TV his recipe was widely panned and caused an uproar of Twitter complaints from food lovers and patriotic Valencians alike. Oh Jamie… I guess you can’t get it right always!
Address: Santa Catalina (17) at Plaza Santa Catalina 6.
Up next Suzie took us to Valencia’s famous food market – Mercado Central – the place I was most excited about. Set inside a huge art nouveau building, it’s almost as impressive from the outside. But not quite. As you take a step inside, you’re met with a line-up of tantalizing stalls offering just about any ingredients needed to make local and international dishes.
Many of the stalls consist of local meat delicacies including cured ham (jamón) which I left up to Dan to try whilst I demolished a plate of local cheeses. For something sweet I recommend trying turron, a nougat typically made of honey, sugar, egg white and nuts. Since this is popular during Christmas time, the variety of turron that was on offer was wider than usual. Many provided a twist on classic flavours by infusing alcohol.
You’ll also find all the seafood is located at the back of the market. Interestingly, there’s a stall where you can take your fresh seafood and they’ll cook it for you. It’s a superb and affordable concept if you’re looking for something extra fresh and quick.
Suzie also brought us to a few artisan shops, offering locals goods like wine, chocolate and olive oil. I was particularly fond of a liquor store nearby the market, housed in a former apothecary. It still retains all the traditional charms of its former life, complete with pretty antique cabinets.
Being a chocolate fiend, Dan’s favourite place was a family-owned chocolate shop that’s been running for a few generations. They have a special type of chocolate that you can heat up without it melting, which is just what you need in sunny Spain, a place where chocolate can go very Salvador Daliesque in a matter of minutes.
You didn’t think we’d go on a gastronomic tour of Valencia without appeasing our taste buds on tapas did you?
On a quest to seek out more flavours we weaved around a few street corners until we came to a cosy tapas bar known for its authentic and affordable dishes, making it popular among locals. Among them was Esgarraet, a typical dish from Valencia consisting of grilled red peppers, cured cod, garlic and olive oil. Suzie also ordered my personal favourite, patatas bravas, with a moreish dollop of aioli and a sprinkle of paprika. Simple yet utterly delicious.
To finish our tour we ended with a traditional ‘drinking’ game. Suzie showed us how to drink Mistela, a sweet wine, the fun way – from a porron! A porron is a traditional glass wine pitcher that resembles a very elegant… watering can. The aim of the game requires you to bring the spout close to your mouth, you then tilt the porron until the liquid starts coming out and then you slowly pull it away from your face. I epically failed.
The further you get it away from your mouth the more impressive your technique is considered. I, of course, spilt the wine all down my top while completely missing my mouth. I don’t know how because my mouth is big enough! Dan, however, was suspiciously good while Suzie showed us how to do it like a true pro. She didn’t spill a single drop!
Here’s a great clip to watch if you want to know how to drink from a porron the expert way.
And the rest…
Another great thing about this tour is that you can ask Suzie for recommends and she’ll happily make suggestions. Whether you want restaurant recommendations or seeking out museums. Plus you can go back to some of the places that inspired you during the tour. I ended up back at Horchatería Santa Catalina another three times for Horchata and churros, because no trip to Spain is complete without churros and hot chocolate, right?
And keeping up with our culinary theme of the trip, we had some pretty spectacular meals between ourselves.
Come on, you didn’t expect me to go to Valencia without trying paella, did you?
For more information about Suzie’s tours please visit her website: Tours in Valencia.