Located on Spain’s sun-kissed Orange Blossom Coast, where the Turia River meets the Mediterranean Sea, Valencia not only boasts a sunny climate, soft-sand beaches and a culture-packed old town, but also a foodie scene that’s on the up.
But what to eat and where to eat it? Here are a few little pointers to get you headed in the right direction…
Galvanising its foodie credentials, Valencia’s Mercat Central is the largest covered market in Europe. Its Art Deco facade of regal ceramics houses a staggering array of some 400 stalls selling the freshest produce from both land and sea: seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, cured meats, nuts, butter-soft Iberian ham, cheeses, ruby-red prawns, sea urchins and wriggling little limpets that dance on ice.
Retrogusto Coffee Mates is a tiny little stall in Central Market that sells next generation coffee: cold brews, pour-overs and espresso-based classics — ethically sourced and beautifully roasted. Sugar not necessary. Pair with a freshly-baked pastry piped with creamy “dulce de leche” (a sort of caramelised creamy goo) from one of the neighbouring pastry stalls and you’ve got the makings of the perfect breakfast.
A quick stroll around the ancient streets of Barrio del Carmen will reveal all sorts of wonderful little eateries, including well-known spots such as La Pilareta, which is famous for its juicy mussels, La Taverna Marisa, where you can feast on healthy tapas and local wines, and Sidrería El Molinón, where you can indulge in gourmet dishes and ciders from the gastro-gods of Asturias.
For gourmet tapas with a creative twist, I recommend heading to the Cánovas neighbourhood, where you can feast on market-fresh tapas at MercatBar. It’s owned by the multi-Michelin-starred chef, Quique Dacosta, but don’t worry, the set menus here offer outstanding value for money and will take you on a gastronomic voyage of discovery. Dishes are playful and include creations like pastry “air-bags” that burst with flavours of parmesan and bacon as you bite into them, oysters with sesame-seed-infused seaweed and my personal favourite, succulent braised bull-tail.
For those with a sweet disposition, Valencia’s famous horchata and sugar-dusted “farton” pastries are the perfect little pick-me-ups. Horchata is similar to a milkshake, except it’s made with water, sugar and tiger-nuts, or “chufas” as the Spaniards call them. It’s sweet and creamy with a sort of chalky smoothness to it that’s really refreshing on a sunny day. There are a number of great little “horchaterias”, but the locals all agree that Santa Catalina is where you’ll find the best in town.
Turron is a sort of sweet and chewy nougat made with toasted almonds and it’s famous around the world as a traditional Christmas treat. This essential Spanish staple originates from Valencia and the city is still home to one of the most celebrated turronerias of all time: Turrones A. Galiana. Here, a small team of dedicated artisans hand-make and pack slabs of delectable turron of all varieties, as well as classic cakes and tempting sugared fruits. For the cultural-foodie, this is an edible slice of history not to be missed.
Paella actually comes from Valencia and was originally a humble dish enjoyed by farmers and labourers who would huddle around a huge paella pan (hence the name) to feast. Traditional paella recipes included Valencian rice pepped up with green beans, saffron and a mixture of chicken, rabbit and/or snails — not seafood as we now consider to be “the norm”.
Naturally, you’ll find countless bars and restaurants serving paella and “arroz” (rice dishes) all over the city, but the king of the paella pan is unquestionably La Pepica, which is a traditional restaurant with a huge sun terrace idyllically located right on the beach. Order the classic Valencian paella with chicken, rabbit and green beans for an authentic taste of paella the way it was made back in the good ‘ol days, or try the iconic house special Pepica’s seafood paella with ready-peeled shellfish.
Paella can be an expensive business at times, but pop into El Laboratorio, which is conveniently located just off the ever charming Plaza de la Virgen, and you can enjoy a traditional paella feast washed down with an expertly-made cocktail for around €10.
Valencia produces a staggering amount of sweet and juicy oranges and the ultimate way to enjoy them is squeezed into the city’s emblematic drink: Agua de Valencia (Water of Valencia). Don’t be fooled by the name, this boozy concoction contains not a drop of water, but instead consists of freshly juiced Valencian oranges spiked with cava, vodka and/or gin. Enjoy it in the fancy surroundings of Café de Las Horas, where you can sip on it by the jugful whilst enjoying live music and soaking up the theatrical ambiance.
For serious fine dining in a bright and casual environment — and with prices that are surprisingly inviting — Seu Xerea’s Mediterranean-Asian fusion menus are simply unmissable. Chef and culinary visionary Steve Anderson creates dishes such as chicken and peanut samosas and mackerel namban with spicy yoghurt that show skill and creativity, whilst the pork ribs with sweet potato, hoisin, pineapple and ginger will take you to a whole new level of foodie heaven.
Then there’s the Michelin-starred Restaurant Riff. The creation of Bernd H.Knöller, a phenomenally experienced fine dining chef who I had the pleasure of hanging out with for a day, Riff is the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication to the art of the kitchen. Dishes change frequently, “Too frequently,” Bernd explained to me as we hotfooted it around Mercat Central to order a few ingredients before service.
“I’m a romantic chef. I like to come here, to see the produce. It gives me inspiration and new ideas.” Signature flavours include rice with gently grilled octopus, hake with white beans and chorizo and langoustines with organic tomatoes and dill. Simple, you might think, until you put it in your mouth and everything just makes sense.
“The foodie is happy if the food looks pretty,” said Bernd, “but for the gourmet, it’s all about the flavour, how the taste makes you feel.”
Barcelona may be leading Spain’s craft beer revolution, but Valencia’s scene is equally as exciting. After hearing I was interested in finding out about local specialist bars, Bernd began to gush with enthusiasm about an Italian couple who set up a bar called La Birreria, specialising in Italian brews.
“They import this special unpasteurised beer from Italy that’s really fresh. I am obsessed with quality, with excellence, and these people are the same,” he explained as we approached the owners.
“Heineken, for example, I give a five and a half out of ten, but these beers are at least a nine and a half!” This is high-praise indeed coming from a man who has earned and defended a Michelin star.
Roberto, the owner, swiftly poured a tasting flight of draught beers ranging from ultra-hoppy double IPAs to dark and sultry stouts and Belgian-style wheat beers. The quality truly was extraordinary and I am already planning my return so that I can taste more.
For the perfect ending to the perfect day of gluttony, order a bottle of the Saltafoss Belgian tripel beer, which Bernd described as being a perfect ten.
“It’s so good that’s it’s almost not beer. It’s pushing the limits. It’s incredible,” said Bernd. I couldn’t have agreed more.
Flights to Valencia
- Ben Holbrook